Lecture examines ugly laws

What is an ugly law? Also known as “unsightly beggar ordinances,” ugly laws make it illegal for people deemed to have unsightly disabilities or disfigurements to appear in public.

What is an ugly law?

Also known as “unsightly beggar ordinances,” ugly laws make it illegal for people deemed to have unsightly disabilities or disfigurements to appear in public.

On Thursday, students, citizens, faculty members and local activists gathered to take part in a lecture presented by Susan Schweik, the associate dean of arts and humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, aimed at discussing these types of laws.

The lecture, “Ugly Laws Then and Now,” examined developments in Portland’s legislation from it’s ugly law past to the present, and how the Americans with Disability Act has been manipulated into a struggle between disability rights and homeless rights.

The City of Chicago Ordinance of 1911 states: “No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person [is] to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places of the city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view.”

Different cities have different versions, but the city of Chicago’s definition encompasses the overall aims of the ugly laws, Schweik said.

The ugly law originated in San Francisco in 1867, right after the Civil War, Schweik said: “It swept the country in the 1880s and 1890s.”

While these seem like lessons of the past, similar laws exist in different forms and have ramifications that are still relevant today.

In 2010, the City of Portland announced its new Sidewalk Management Plan, which is reminiscent of the ugly laws, Schweik said.

In a press release issued by the office of former Mayor Sam Adams, the city said, “Public sidewalks are a public service. This ordinance takes a holistic approach to managing the myriad of sidewalk uses by segregating the sidewalks into zones, which allows for more efficient use of the available space. It is based on federal American with Disabilities Act (1990), Architectural Barriers Act (1968) and the Rehabilitation Act (1973), all of which include specific design guidelines that disabled citizens need for unobstructed passage on public sidewalks.”

While this plan seems to be about providing aid to the disabled, this creates a host of problems for the city’s homeless, Schweik said.

The impact of the plan has been the source of much debate and controversy in the Portland metropolitan area. Sisters of the Road, an organization aimed at alleviating and eradicating homelessness and poverty, shared criticism that encapsulates many people’s views on the subject.

In a press release in response to the sidewalk plan’s announcement, Sisters of the Road said, “The concept of this Sidewalk Management Plan…seems unnecessary and suspiciously like recycled policy that is intended to keep Portland’s most impoverished citizens tightly monitored, controlled and pushed away to where they will not be seen.

“It is not ethical to pit one set of differently-abled [sic] people against a group of medically vulnerable people, especially when additional special treatment is given to others who can pay to be in these common areas,” the release continued.

“It acts as a 21st century vagrant and loitering plan,” Schweik said. “It’s the panhandlers and the homeless who are being targeted.”

The plan doesn’t address Portland’s problems in the downtown area, and doesn’t resolve any problems of disability access, she said.

“The ADA is being horribly twisted. It’s being used as a weak tool of the strong,” Schweik said. “The ADA should be used by city officials as a strong tool of the strong.”

While the lecture has ended, the debate continues. Schweik recently released a book about the history of these ugly laws and the people they’ve affected, entitled The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, available now.