Book Exposes Now-Defunct "Ugly Laws" Against the Disabled

By Kate Rix

Susan Schweik’s research for her book about now-defunct laws that banned “diseased, maimed or deformed” people from appearing in public got started literally as a historical footnote.

Schweik, professor of English and associate dean of Arts and Humanities, was busy working on a piece about the poet Josephine Miles, the first woman to be tenured in Berkeley’s English Department. While working up a footnote related to Miles’ disability, she noticed how little research backed up a references she had seen to municipal codes in a number of American cities aimed at segregating disabled people from mainstream society.

“They were shocking and seemingly archaic ordinances,” says Schweik. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York University) came out in May.

From the late 1860s and until the 1970s, many American cities had so-called “ugly laws” on the books, making it illegal for a person who was “diseased, maimed or mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” to “expose himself to public view.”

Schweik had heard of such laws, which had taken on the status of urban legends within the disability movement, often appearing as a dramatic theme in theatrical productions. But in researching the disability issues in Miles’ life, Schweik realized how very little was really known about the laws that targeted poor and disabled people.

Surprisingly, the first ugly law was enacted in San Francisco in 1867.

“There were a lot of broken down miners at the time, hurt and living on the streets,” Schweik notes. “It was right after the Civil War. San Francisco was under extreme urban pressure, between the war, large-scale migration and immigration, the amount of industrial and work-related injuries and, in particular, the cosmopolitan mix of strangers living together.” 

The laws were especially common in the midwest and west. With a few exceptions, enforcement of the ordinances targeted poor disabled people who were either begging or simply appearing in public. 

“Although it’s crucial to remember why the disability movement has so creatively remembered these laws, it’s equally important to realize that the law didn’t target FDR or Helen Keller.” Schweik says. “It targeted poor people.” 

It was a time of little or no social safety net. Poor people, particularly those with disabilities, often made money by selling pencils on the street or playing music in public. Social unrest grew intense and the police were under pressure to keep beggars off city streets. 

“If a beggar had disability — was paralyzed, say, or appeared to be blind — and the police came, crowds would gather around. People were getting upset,” Schweik says. Anti-begging laws weren’t enough. Cities felt that if they had another law — one that specifically forbade the public display of disability — then they might suppress growing unrest.

Schweik’s book includes accounts from self-published memoirs by disabled people arrested under ugly laws. One of these rare histories was written by a middle class man, Arthur Franklin Fuller, who was forced out of Brooklyn because of his disability. 

“His account is a work of underground sociology, a piece of critical legal disability theory and manifesto against the law,” says Schweik. 

In many places, ugly laws lingered on the books until the mid-1970s. Chicago repealed its version of the ordinance as recently as 1974, the year of the last known arrest for violation of the law. However, the conditions that created the laws are still alive and well. An anxious culture, Schweik observes, can become savage in winnowing the deserving from the undeserving. 

She notes that a number of American cities have recently passed anti-begging laws. A new Las Vegas statute defines an “indigent” person as one “whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive ‘public assistance.” Las Vegas also recently banned the sharing of food with indigent people in public places. 

“These laws criminalize poverty and define that as ‘if you look indigent to us,’” Schweik says. “This is very much related to the dynamics of appearance, the vagueness about what constitutes ‘unsightly’ or ‘disgusting,’ at the heart of the historical ugly law.” 

Schweik also includes analysis of discrimination on the basis of personal appearance, citing a recent case of a woman who worked for MacDonald’s as a line cook and trained many managers but was never made manager herself. When she asked about this, the woman, who had a port wine stain birthmark on her face, was told that it was because “you would make babies cry.” 

She filed a discrimination complaint. In the course of negotiations she was offered a settlement but no money for pain and suffering. The justification: Because of her appearance, she must hear remarks like the one her manager made all the time. 

“In her case the law wasn’t remotely as crude as the wording of the ugly laws, but the effects are the same,” Schweik says. “Instead of a black and white distinction between the unsightly and its opposite, today these effects play out in or as gray areas — for instance, as a question of balancing individual rights against the right of a business to avoid alienating customers. Today, people are still kept out of public view, but with mechanisms that are usually more subtle.”

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| Updated: Dec 01, 2009