When America's "Ugly Laws" Hid the Disabled Poor From the Public Eye

Cristen Conger

"The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public" by Berkeley professor Susan M. Schweik.
"The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public" by Berkeley professor Susan M. Schweik.
Courtesy: Amazon

When disability activism began in earnest in the 1970s, it first took aim at the so-called "ugly laws" enacted in cities across the United States. First passed in San Francisco in 1867 -- Order No. 783. To Prohibit Street Begging, and to Restrain Certain Persons from Appearing in Streets and Public Places -- "ugly laws" forbade visibly disabled poor people from panhandling and generally occupying public spaces. Cities around the country including Portland, Denver and New Orleans followed San Francisco's lead.

For example, disability activist Dan Thompson highlights Chicago's textbook "ugly law" enacted in 1881:

"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly, disgusting or improper is to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."

In other words, under these laws visibly disabled people could be fined for being seen and deemed "unsightly" or "disgusting." But of course politicians argued that this served a public good. These laws were ostensibly passed to target street begging, though their historical context also belies such simplicity.

University of California Berkeley professor and disabilities studies expert Susan M. Schweik notes how a combination of an economic recession, post-Civil War influx of disabled veterans and disabled immigrants moving to growing cities spurred a new -- and publicly visible -- destitute and disabled population. In her book, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public , Schweik describes the effect of these laws as "distinguishing which forms of bodily difference were and which were not moral transgressions." And remember, too, that freak shows were still mainstream entertainment, further complicating this ableist hierarchy of discrimination.

"The ugly laws were motivated not simply by appearance politics but by the need to control the economics of the underclass and group behavior within it," Schweik writes.

"Ugly" is a mild descriptor for this turn-of-the-century legislation it turns out. Hideous is more like it.

Although their enforcement peaked between the Civil War and World War I, "ugly laws" remained on many municipal books long after. In 1974, Chicago became the last city to repeal its ordinance. But it would still take another 16 years for Washington to Americans with Disabilities Act, finally codifying civil protections against everything the "ugly laws" stood for.

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