America’s Ugly Laws: An Ugly Story

 In Social Commentary

“Ugly Laws” were local ordinances enacted to keep people with unsightly or disfiguring disabilities from appearing in public. Beginning in the 1860s, several American cities (for example, Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Omaha, Nebraska; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois) passed ugly laws that deemed it illegal for anyone who was “unsightly or unseemly” to appear in public

In 1867, San Francisco enacted the country’s first ugly law. These laws weren’t called “ugly” back then. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the term began to be used. “Ugly” refers not only to how the targets of these laws were perceived but also to the ugliness of the laws, themselves.

Chicago’s ugly law, enacted in 1881, initially read,

“Whereas the streets and sidewalks of the City of Chicago contain numerous beggars, mendicants, organ-grinders and other unsightly and unseemly objects, which are a reproach to the City, disagreeable to people upon the streets, an offense to business houses along the streets and often dangerous, Therefore be it ordered, That the mayor at once take steps to remove from the streets all beggars, mendicants, and all those who by way of making Exhibition of themselves and their infirmaries seek to obtain money from people on and along the streets.”

That was subsequently revised to read, “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.”

It was not until 1974, after( 93 years, that Chicago repealed its ugly law, making it the last city in the country to do so. (Omaha, Nebraska repealed its ugly law in 1967; the city of Columbus, Ohio did so in 1972.)

Ugly laws were enforced almost entirely against those whom we now refer to as “street people,” whether or not they had disabilities. Beggars, panhandlers, poor people, the down-and-out, the blind, the deaf, the lame– all were targets.

Today, cities throughout the country have enacted sit-lie ordinances that target the homeless. Typical is the Civil Sidewalks Ordinance passed by San Francisco voters in 2010 that prohibits anyone from sitting or lying on the city’s sidewalks. Are sit-lie ordinances today’s ugly laws? Are they yet another attempt to disappear those who are deemed better not seen in public places? You decide.

To learn much more about America’s ugly laws, read The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, an informative and fascinating book by Susan M. Schweik.

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