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To Live in the World

Q. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of the Disability Rights Movement at Berkeley and the name Jacobus tenBroek keeps coming up. I think he has a Boalt Hall connection. What can you tell me about him? --LJ, Berkeley

Jacobus tenBroek
Jacobus tenBroek

A. With the establishment of the Center for Independent Living in 1972, Berkeley became ground zero for an activist movement of people living with disabilities.  CIL was pioneering and radical, because it was directed by people with disabilities who advocated (and agitated) on behalf of people like themselves.  Their first non-negotiable demand — curb cuts and building ramps for people in wheelchairs — seemed outrageous and ridiculous, and is now the law of the land.  But long before the CIL, a feisty blind Boalt Hall alumnus named Jacobus tenBroek elucidated what he termed “the right to live in the world,” and showed that sometimes to secure justice you need to piss off the complacent.

“Something more than a quarter of a million Americans today are denied full membership in their society — restrained in liberty, forbidden equality, refused opportunity, and threatened in security — for the reason only that they are blind.”

The words might have been shouted through a bullhorn at a noon rally on the steps of Sproul Hall yesterday, yet they were broadcast from Nashville over the NBC radio network in 1952, at the beginning of one of the most conservative, conformist and clueless decades of American history.  The occasion was the annual meeting of the National Federation of the Blind, and the speaker was Jacobus tenBroek.

“What prevents the blind from practicing the rights and enjoying the fruits of membership in society?” tenBroek asked.  “Quite simply, it is the refusal of their neighbors to take them at their word and deed; it is the reluctance of the vast majority of Americans to relinquish their comforting and charitable conception of the blind individual as not only sightless but helpless, and not only helpless but hopeless.  Viewing him through this ancient stereopticon, they come to regard him as finally and permanently disabled despite clear evidence to the contrary; and with the greatest good will in the world, they lead him by the hand off the busy main avenues and into the sheltered back streets of society.”

Jacobus “Chick” tenBroek was born in Alberta, Canada, in 1911.  He was partially blinded in a bow and arrow accident at the age of seven, and eventually lost his sight completely.  His parents moved to Berkeley in 1919 so that he could attend the California School for the Deaf and Blind (now the Clark Kerr Campus of the University of California).  Despite the challenges presented by his blindness, he received his Bachelors degree in History from Cal summa cum laude in 1934, and a Masters degree in Political Science in 1935.  He also earned two law degrees from Boalt Hall: an LL.B. in 1938 and a J.S.D. in 1940.  As a Boalt Hall student he was a member of the California Law Review, and was elected to the Order of the Coif.  Then as a Brandeis Research Fellow he earned a S.J.D. from Harvard Law School, and upon graduation joined the law faculty at the University of Chicago.

In 1942 tenBroek returned to Berkeley, accepting a position as instructor in the Speech Department.  He eventually became a full professor, and served as the chairman of the department from 1955 to 1961.  In 1963 he transferred to the Political Science Department, where he taught until his death in 1968.           

Throughout his career tenBroek fought a contentious battle to win self-sufficiency for the blind, at times pitting himself against those already providing services to the handicapped.  In 1959 he testified before Congress on a bill (proposed by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy) that would strip Federal funding from any program that restricted the participation of what we would today call disability rights advocates.  The proposal drew the ire of the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, who called the bill “unsound, unnecessary and self-serving.”  According to an article in the New York Times, tenBroek retorted that services for the blind were currently controlled by “vested interests that perpetuated a philosophy of custodialism, defeatism and conservatism.” Kennedy’s bill went down to defeat.

The disability establishment that tenBroek was challenging was deeply entrenched, and from the perspective of the current era of the Americans with Disabilities Act, their good-hearted condescension is absolutely astonishing.  In a 1957 speech tenBroek quoted a man who for the last thirty years had been the superintendent of a school for the blind.  The veteran educator insisted that “the handcrafts in which the blind can do first-class work are very limited in number, with basketry, weaving, knitting, broom- and brush-making, and chair caning as the most promising and most thoroughly tried out....  [T]he crafts pursued by the blind may best be carried out in special workshops under the charge of government officials or trained officers of certain benevolent associations.”

TenBroek would have none of it, and wrote tirelessly on the legal aspects of civil and human rights for the disenfranchised, disabled and marginalized.  His book The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment (University of California Press, 1951) remains a classic in its field.  Thurgood Marshall is said to have relied heavily on the book for his arguments in Brown v. Board of Education.  But it is tenBroek’s 1966 California Law Review article, “The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled in the Law of Torts” that has been called “a seminal article in the field of American disability law.” 

One of the ironies of social activism is how quickly society forgets The Way Things Were, and as a result the significant achievements of activists are perhaps inevitably undervalued.  To place Jacobus tenBroek in the proper perspective, we need only turn to another part of that 1957 speech, in which he quotes a psychologist who criticized those who like tenBroek were politically active on behalf of the blind.  “A further confusion of attitude is found in educators and workers for the blind,” scolded the psychologist, “who try to propagandize society with the rational concept that the blind are normal individuals [merely] without vision.  This desperate whistling in the dark does more damage than good.”  He was quite certain about how people with disabilities should be treated.  “There are two general directions for attacking such a problem, either to adjust the individual to the environment, or to rearrange the environment so that it ceases to be a difficulty to the individual.  It is quite obvious that the latter program is not only inadvisable but also impossible.  However, it is the attack that nearly every frustrated, maladjusted person futilely attempts.”

Boalt Hall has a long tradition of graduating frustrated, maladjusted persons who attempt the inadvisable, and achieve the impossible.

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