Monday, April 29, 2013


After a crazy-busy, totally productive weekend, I'm gearing up for yet another crazy-busy week.  It's that time of the year: classes are winding down, grading is pouring in... in short, spring is here.

I've been reading Susan M. Schweik's The Ugly Laws.  Published in 2009, Schweik's book examines a pivotal moment in disability law in America: the creation of "unsightly beggar" ordinances (more colloquially known as "ugly laws") in various US cities in the late 19th century.

San Francisco passed the earliest known ordinance in 1867.  Chicago's traces back to 1881, New Orleans enacted a similar kind of legislation in 1879.  New York attempted one, with little success.  As Schweik points out, the ordinances were more successful in the Midwest, in towns connected by the newly-emerging railway lines.

They were also imposed more successfully in cities marked by increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

The 1881 Chicago City Code reads as follows:
"Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense."
Schweik offers the following photograph of one person arrested under the unsightly beggar ordinance in Cleveland in 1916.

The "Cleveland Cripple Survey." (Welfare Federation of Cleveland, Education and Occupations of Cripples Juvenile and Adult: A Survey of All the Cripples of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916.  New York: Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, 1918)
As you can see, "unsightly" was definitely a matter of opinion.  This man is clean, he's publicly presentable, he's smiling, he's employed.

He's wearing a tie, for heaven's sake.

Schweik uses this photograph as an entry-point into the complex motivations behind the "ugly laws" and their enforcement in cities and town across America at the end of the nineteenth century.  On the one hand, a world-wide economic recession (or depression, depending on how you define it) spanned the years 1873-1879.  Another economic "panic," known as The Panic of 1893, occurred in--you guessed it--1893, and sparked a recession lasting for 4 more years.

(Has the US economy ever NOT been on the verge of collapse?  Just wondering...)

At the same time, the 1870s were the decades marked by the aftermath of the Civil War.  Wounded veterans and amputees were not uncommon, and in many cases, these soldiers displayed their scars and injuries with pride.  And they were viewed with patriotic admiration by many of those around them.

As Schweik points out, it is difficult to ascertain how stringently the unsightly beggar ordinances were enforced (although it is clear that they were in fact enforced).  Although they existed on the books, police officers reportedly faced "ugly crowds" when they tried to implement the ordinances--people who objected to the cruelty and unfairness of the acts.

The final decades of the 19th century were also marked by a second Industrial Revolution.  More and more people worked in factories and workplace safety was non-existent.  It was also what is known as "the Gilded Age"--marked by the vast wealth and conspicuous consumption of a handful of entrepreneurs.

If you were a Vanderbilt or a Carnegie, you might not want to see the unsightly side of your business when you were strolling down the street: unemployed, maimed and injured workers.

More importantly, if you yourself were an injured Vanderbilt or Carnegie, you would not necessarily be deemed "unsightly"--as Schweik points out "Unsightliness was a status offense, illegal only for people without means."

The "lumping together of crime, poverty, and disability" marked by the "ugly laws" is the focus of Schweik's investigation.  How and why did the United States respond to socioeconomic and political crisis with an aesthetics of the body?

As Schweik points out, the ordinances fit squarely within an American rhetoric of individualism: remove each and every unsightly beggar and you will eliminate all vestiges of social turmoil.  Charitable organizations thus focused (at least ideologically), not on donations, but on spiritual uplift.

The source of the "problem," as the "ugly laws" defined it, could not be "fixed" by money or economic stability, since it was strategically relocated to the mind and attitude of the disabled individual him- or herself.  The "problem" was allegedly testified to by his or her "unsightly" body and its presence in public.

Schweik also explores the rhetoric of "good intentions" that surrounds the figure of the "unsightly beggar."  While other forms of racism and stereotyping might only indirectly invoke the idea of "helping" or "doing what was best" for the oppressed others that were being targeted, the idea of "benevolence" largely shapes the public perception of disability--both then and now.

It is, in many ways, a rhetoric of pity devoid of empathy.  "Their" experience is not "ours" (although, at any moment, it might be), so we assume we know what's "best."  Why would someone who "looks bad" want to be out in public anyway?  Won't they just wish they looked like everyone else (whatever that means)?  "We're" "only" thinking of what's "best" for "them."

Ultimately, Schweik's fascinating historical analysis suggests that the many categories inflecting disability studies in general and the phenomenon of the "ugly laws" in particular, are rife with ambiguities, assumptions and unspoken intentions.

These categories and their ambivalence shape both how we view ourselves and how we envision the spaces we occupy, both public and private.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."