On patrol in Omaha in 1974, a police officer wanted to apprehend a homeless man but had no basis for the arrest. Consulting the city code, he found an obscure ordinance prohibiting deformed and disabled people from appearing in public. The officer took the man into custody, citing his visible scars. Confused, city prosecutors quickly released the man but were forced to admit that the decades-old law was still active.
Ugly laws, or “unsightly beggar ordinances,” first appeared in America in the late 19th century, writes Susan M. Schweik, author of The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York University Press). Their enactors proposed to tidy up city streets by banning people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed,” as it was put in San Francisco in 1867, in the first known version of such laws.
Also, check out Publishers Weekly’s review of the book:
In 1881, the Chicago City Code read, “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed… shall not… expose himself to public view.” These “ugly laws” began in San Francisco in 1867, then spread through the U.S. and abroad; many in the U.S. weren’t repealed until the 1970s. English professor Schweik (A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War), co-director of UC Berkley’s disabilities studies program, explores the emergence of these laws and their tragic consequences for thousands. Motivated largely by the desire to reduce beggar populations and to expand the role of charitable organizations, in practical terms the ugly laws meant “harsh policing; antibegging; systematized suspicion…; and structural and institutional repulsion of disabled people.” Schweik discusses the nineteenth century conditions that created a demand for these laws, but notes how the resulting practices have carried through to the present. Schweik draws on a deep index of resources, from legal proceedings to out-of-print books, to tell the story of individuals long lost to history. Her detailed analysis will be of primary interest to those involved with the history of social justice in the U.S. and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 18 Illus. (May)