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 in 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Omaha repealed their Ugly Law in 1967; Columbus withdrew theirs in 1972; Chicago was the last to stop punishing the Ugly in 1974.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?


  1. Wow.
    And I thought Oklahoma’s old law against cursing at vegetables in public was ridiculous!
    I have a feeling that such laws were created to make it easier to ignore the disabled and poor. Creating an “Ugly Law” kept them out of the public eye, and enforcing it even once probably embarrassed them to the point that they never went out in public again.

  2. You’ll have to give us a link to the vegetable cursing law, Emily! 😀
    Yes, the Ugly Laws were created to keep people out of the public eye not for a biological reason but one of “community aesthetic” that could not be helped.
    Nebraska actually created their law in a more pernicious way by calling theirs a “Beggar Ordinance” because no one likes a beggar.
    Beggars are “lazy” and they don’t have jobs “because they’re drunk or stupid.”
    Unfortunately, in the 1900s and onward those who had to beg in the street for money and food to eat were the Disabled — because no one would hire them and no social programs were in place to care for them.
    Institutionalization was not even an option then because “The Great Society” had yet to be born.

  3. I am aware of the feelings of the society about the so called “disfigured” and “ugly” people, but a law to keep them under cover?
    That’s a surprise.
    Wait a minute. Should it be, really?
    I remember my grand pa telling my grand grand ma – “your grand daughter would have been gorgeous only if her skin tone was a bit light!”
    I was in 12th grade then, 17 year old – young, vibrant, jolly and yes, attractive.
    What would they do if I ended up being disfigured as a result of suffering from black measles?

  4. You raise some hard questions, Katha. How did you respond to that news against your skin color?
    Are there any formal laws to keep the “un-beautiful” off the streets?

  5. When I was a child, my best friend had an older brother who had Cerebral Palsy.
    My friend’s family had attended the same church where her parents had been married and knew absolutely everyone in the congregation. It hurt my friend’s parents very much to find out that many members of the congregation had actually held a meeting to “decide what should be done” about their son coming to the Sunday services.
    Apparently these people did not wish to share their church services with a disabled person who occasionally made too much noise or required a little attention from the parents now and again. The parents never took their family to that church again.
    I am looking for a link to the Vegetable Cursing law but to no avail! I have found plenty of other Stupid Oklahoma Laws, but not the Veggie Vindication! I am still looking though…

  6. This reminds me of Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, the beauty of the community depends on the hiding of the ugly and unpleasant. A Marxist reading would suggest that the haves don’t want to face the fact that they’ve built their pretty worlds on the backs of the have-nots. On another level, it suggests we can’t accept flaws in ourselves. On yet another, it says we punish people for being disabled in some way. We call it a flaw and inflict harm on a person who is guilty of nothing.

  7. What a story, Emily! You should write it out as a full piece for publication here.
    When I was at UNL, Bill Rush, who had CP, was a campus icon. He was in a wheelchair and he communicated with a point stick attached to his head and an alphabet board on his lap.
    No one would help him open a door, order a pizza or get change for the bus. People would finish his sentences for him. Spit continuously drooled from the side of his mouth. No one would clean his alphabet board to remove the pooling spit.
    We had a small circle of us who would try to help Bill whenever we saw him on campus — and we got a harsh taste of the cruelty that surrounded him — but we all knew our small bit of suffering with him wasn’t anything compared to the reality of his life. We all knew we were better for knowing him. We weren’t sure of the reverse.
    Bill died in 2004 at the age of 49:

  8. Sandy —
    Thank you for that reference to the short story!
    Hasn’t all of civilization been built on the backs of the “uglies” and the “unwanteds?”

  9. I was rude David, on today’s date when I think about the incident I find my reaction pretty offensive. But at that point, I just lost it.
    I only declared – “You should try finding a Jeorge Cloony look-like as your son-in-law instead of my father, if I eneded up looking like Julia Roberts with an average looking parents like mine…do you think it would reflect very positively on their character?”
    There was no law as such, but everyone knows the social ostracization those disabled and ugly people go through.

  10. Hi Katha!
    I am so glad you were rude! That is the response that comment deserved, my beloved. Let ’em have it right between the eyes back. Shrink from no fight — especially when they were trying to kill you in every way.

  11. Aren’t most politicians ugly? Might few are pretty but most at local level are ugly and that’s why they run for office because no one will have them otherwise.

  12. Yes, the answer shocked them. I was branded as a “rebel”.
    Well, the brand name didn’t bother me much, their comment came from a typical narrow mindset but now when I think about it I feel I shouldn’t stoop to that level.
    Those who are disabled in India, they can’t even protest – at least I did.

  13. It’s still very hurtful to have your grandparents reject you like that, Katha. So is “wheat colored skin” considered an insult in India?

  14. Ugly people gain power and friends through politics. Really pretty people have power just because they were born. hahah

  15. David,
    India has a wide variety of skin colors, starting from peach and cream complexion to wheatish, brown and dark.
    Those who do not belong to the “peach and cream” category, they are considered not the right kind of color.
    Is that an insult?
    I think those who judge others based on their color are “idiots”. They are so ignorant about the depth of their stupidity!
    I cherish the thought and laugh at them.

  16. Hi David,
    Your piece caused me to think about how our American society values youth and beauty. Also, in other cultures what is considered “beautiful,” e.g., tatooing by scarring in some African tribes, would be considered disfiguring in ours.
    Even in our own society, the standard for beauty has changed. Big-breasted women would not have been all the rage in Victorian times, but most in our society thought Anna Nicole Smith was “hot.”
    Not only do we discriminate against those with physical disabilities, we are also quick to ostracize those with mental disabilities.
    Today, I was in Walmart returning an item and the “Walmart greeter” who had to tag my return was an old man who was missing a few fingers. He struggled to peel the return tag off the waxed paper with the few fingers he had. I found myself thinking, “Why does Walmart put the disabled in charge of greeting? It doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.” But then I thought “Yes, it does. Here are those so knocked down by life, but yet they keep going.”
    A quote came to mind from Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,”
    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

  17. David,
    Mr. Rush was obviously a dynamic person. What a wonderful thing that your group was willing to treat him as an equal human being, and yet terrible that it was such extraordinary behavior.

  18. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Donna. You are brave to confess your feelings about your Wal-Mart experience. I understand how you felt and I’m sure there are others who complained today they were unnecessarily delayed by the man with missing fingers. Not everything is about us. Sometimes we need to be about other people — even if it means a delay or taking a moment to reflect back on someone else’s purchase in life.

  19. Emily —
    Bill Rush was a wonderful person — and he was hard to help even for a moment because he was so severely limited in speech and movement — but he persevered and he relied aupon the kindness of strangers to try to make it through each day.
    Bill was a student at UNL long before there was an ADA requirement in 1990 so he was truly fighting the good fight when he had no legal legs to stand on and so he had to appeal to your morality and your duty in order to press forward his agenda of common human decency.

  20. Hi David,
    You said, “Not everything is about us.”
    As I go through life, I am finding more and more people who think “everything is about us.”
    Am I becoming jaded? I am trying not to be, but it seems that every day I encounter more people that are “into their own thing,” that couldn’t be bothered to reflect on others, to consider their station in life.
    It tends to make one a cynic.

  21. Oh, Donna, I agree 99.999% of the people in the world think the sun revolves around them. They are selfish and awful and wouldn’t help you if you begged them.
    The point I’m trying to make is even though that’s the popular norm, it is wrong. It can’t be about us all the time. If we stop to pause and remember and act on the idea the world can be about other people — and be comfortable with that notion — then we are evolving on a scale that is much higher and mightier than mere evolution.

  22. Hi David,
    Taking the high road is difficult, indeed. A road reserved for “a few good men,” and I don’t mean Marines.

  23. Love your last comment Donna!
    And agree with it – 100% !!! 😀

  24. David,
    I was mad – no doubt about it – but hearbroken? I am not sure.
    They couldn’t dampen my spirit…not till today!
    Who cares whether I am black, brown,white, wheat like, green, blue, polka dotted….?
    I don’t!
    And, I don’t care about those who care about color or look! 😀

  25. It’s a memory that is a part of you, Katha, and while it didn’t break you — it still is part of you and that’s sad and unfortunate condition one should not expect from grandparents.

  26. Part of life…what can you do except ignoring? 😀

  27. Yes David, some memories are there to forget, or else one just ends up torturing his/herself.
    When I try to see it from a neutral point of view I understand this came from a deep seated prejudice of equalizing lighter skin tone with beauty.
    There is a reverse prejudice that says – “the so called grammatically beautiful people are generally dumb because they are so deeply immersed in their own beauty and busy to encash it that they forget to sharpen their intelligence!”
    I laugh at both of them.

  28. You have a wonderful outlook, Katha, and the issue of color and Race is still the cruel conundrum we have yet to solve as a world of cogent people.
    I wonder if the day will ever arrive when the first image of someone isn’t the most important semiotic we remember.

  29. You know the funniest thing David, people who used to regret me marginally missing the chance of being traditionally beutiful because of my skin tone belong to the same country, even share the same ethnicity with me! 😀
    It’s hard not to be infuenced by outward appearance, but it’s doable.

  30. It’s interesting that with every new method of communicating we create, it becomes easier to stray away from the importance of image. Beauty becomes both common place (in media) and a rarity (in real life) and is used as nothing more than marketing in almost all cases. Yet I dont think it’s ever been as possible for the ugly to communicate with absolutely anyone as it is with technology. It’s too bad the same can not be said about power and love… as someone else stated: money, politics, friends, that’s the power of someone who has to rely on their mind.

  31. Being the parent of a child with disabilities (my daughter, now an adult, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy) has markedly changed my path in life – mostly for the better.
    In the 1980s, when she was quite small, my wife wanted to attend a church miles from us. Lo and behold, the pastor there treated our daughter as though she didn’t exist! He wouldn’t talk to her, and obviously didn’t even want to look at her. He obviously found a person who drooled, and is non-verbal, ugly.
    As a result of this, I began to look very closely at what the Christian churches have to say about many topics. Leviticus 21:16 is a good example of what they say about disability, and an excellent passage to use on Christians who declare the Bible literal.
    I ultimately judged my Christian upbringing not worth the effort. I now take inspiration, when needed, from sources like Sakyong Mipham’s

  32. era0 –
    Welcome to Urban Semiotic and thank you for sharing your wonderful comment. We learn through your direct experience.
    I’m sorry to hear about the church experience. Instead of being cherished as a gift from God, your daughter was instead and stoned into non-being. Shameful.
    I appreciate your bible quote.
    Thanks for the great pointer to mipham. It is a wonderful site. You can feel the good energy from the first page.

  33. My daughter too is shamed at many of the churches my family has attended,looks of contempt as she interupts services with her “retarded” outburst,relegated to the quiet rooms in the back to be left w/ strangers while we are supposed to abandon her to “enjoy the service”. I sternly explain to the “believers” I cannot leave her alone with them since the experience of the beginning christian usually is a walk from sin to sanctification(who are they to say their baby sitters were not once abusers or child molesters who wear the cloaks of saints)!
    They look at me w/ horror in their eyes “People like this surely must not come to THIS church”
    I shake my head and lower my eyes to my wonderful child and leave broken to recieve another “blessing from the children of christ”
    A bold statement from an aspiring christian who understands that Christ wanted a change from the law given to the sons of Aaron in Leviticus 22:18-21, to no longer be forbidden to share the bread of God but to now commune as brothers and sisters in Christ!!! I hope, by coincidence happens to be my daughter’s given name(Hope), that I might find a congregation that loves her as much as Christ loved the infirm in his community.

  34. Thank you for your heartfelt comment, kingkupkake. That’s a fascinating, but horrible, experience from which we all must take home necessary lessons.

  35. My new book, The Ugly Laws, just out from New York University Press on May 1 2009, gives a detailed account of why these laws came to be, what stopped them, and how the disability movement has remembered them. Thanks for keeping this history in the public eye.

  36. I’ll definitely make sure you get a copy! What’s the best mailing address?

  37. Hi Susan!
    I will send you an email right now with the mailing address.
    Perhaps we could even do an interview with you as part of the review?

  38. Hi. I am reading “The Ugly Laws” right now. I have a blog site where I am starting to tackle issues relating to Multiple Sclerosis. I have been diagnosed for 9 years, but I am newly divorced and in the process of moving to a SPMS diagnosis. I find the book interesting, not only because Susan gives great history in “The Ugly Laws”, but her research is very thorough. I like your story about the man in Chicago. You never know, until someone puts a label on you, how it feels. During a Mediated session in the Johnson County Court, KS, system this year, I was asked by the mediator, first question, “Was I using my daughter as a nurse?” I had called the mediation to talk about my ex getting my 11 year old daughter a baby sitter and not leaving her alone till midnight on the weekends. I was so stunned by this first question I was unable to open my mouth the rest of the meeting. I even questioned my own ability to take care of my daughter. This I now know this is ableism and I need to legally fight this. I am being helped by, “Through the Looking Glass” in California. I may be in a wheel chair every 6 months with my MS symptoms, but I am a good mother. I put my children first.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Dawn. My concern is the ADA is currently in danger and those with disabilities are being propelled backward 30 years by the current, dismal, state of our political affairs. Instead of the State helping people, we’re headed back to victim-blaming for the disabled.

      1. I am a noob in this disabled world, even though I have been fighting MS symptoms for 9 years. Marriage is good insulation, so is the symptom fight. The blog was created to enlighten my family, and someday my children. I may be a genie yet! But an activist voice for sure.

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