Enforcing the Ugly Laws

Are you aware in the early-to-mid 1900’s it was illegal to be “found ugly” on the streets of some mainstream American cities like Chicago, Illinois (Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034) and Omaha, Nebraska (Unsightly Beggar Ordinance Nebraska Municipal Code of 1941, sec. 25) and Columbus, Ohio (General Offense Code, sec. 2387.04)? Your punishment for being caught public ranged from incarceration to fines of up to $50.00 USD for each ugly offense.

Here’s how the Chicago Municipal Code described and enforced The Ugly Law:

No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person 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 a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.

The goal of Ugly Laws was allegedly to preserve the pretty facade of the community. The Disabled, the indigent and the poor were a part of society, but nobody wanted to deal with them and fewer still wanted to actually look at them.

So laws were passed to keep the deformed — especially those with Cerebral Palsy and other disfiguring diseases — inside and out-of-sight. Janna told me a story she heard from Richard Pimentel, who, in 1971, was having dinner with another friend in Chicago who had Cerebral Palsy.

Their regular waitress — they ate out every night together in the same Diner because neither of them were good cooks — was not working that night.

The replacement waitress was appalled at the sight of the Disabled person that she was expected to serve The waitress asked “what he was doing out at night” and she asked “why he had ever been born” and she called the police to have him arrested “for being so ugly.”

The police arrived and took the friend with Cerebral Palsy away. That story upset Richard so much that he became a Disabled rights activist and that story about his friend with Cerebral Palsy, and his own story of losing his Hearing after serving in the Vietnam war, can be seen on the big screen this Fall in the movie Music Within.

Omaha repealed their Ugly Law in 1967; Columbus withdrew theirs in 1972; Chicago was the last to stop punishing the Ugly in 1974. The recantation of Ugly Laws directly led to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 where certain rights were granted to the Disabled:

Individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority who have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals and resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society.

The ADA began an important advancement in redefining the meaning of Disabled in America. Instead of blaming the body for the Disabled label, people were only viewed as “Disabled” if they could not do something — like walk up a set of steps into a building — and the remedy in the law to remove that Disability was to blame the building and not the body and require ramp access in addition to stairs to provide “Equal Access” for everyone.

There are some who complain even today that the ADA is an unfair law and expensive to adhere to and that it punishes businesses and communities by placing detrimental and costly demands on their communal bottom lines that could be used elsewhere.

For those who argue against “The Joy of Belonging” that the ADA provides to those who were previously required by the law to be ashamed and hidden away or risk Civil Disobedience every day they left their homes under the burden of Ugly Laws created to bind them, I point you back to the experience in the Chicago Diner in 1971 where the police lawfully removed an “Ugly” person with Cerebral Palsy from view because another person — much uglier on the inside than any ugly person could ever be on the outside — decided how and when an unfair and inhuman law should be pursued and prosecuted.

What do these Ugly Laws teach about the view of us through a flawed and imperfect lens of care and conditioning?

Should socialized views of beauty ever be mandated by law?

Was the Ugly Law about hiding ugly bodies and faces from public — or was it more a political mandate masquerading as a beautification effort in order to keep the Disabled out of the mainstream majority so their needs and voices would not have to be formally addressed?