The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public

July 28, 2009

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In The Ugly Laws Sue Schweik explores a long hidden history of disability in Chicago. Beginning in 1881, Chicago had ordinances that attempted to “abolish street obstructions.” The “obstructions” were not piles of trash; they were human beings "people who were born with deformities, or amputations, or who were blind, or just plain poor" legally known as “unsightly beggars.” 

The “Ugly Laws” declared that “No person who is diseased, maimed, or deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object shall expose himself to public view.”  People were arrested and institutionalized simply to get them out of sight.  Schweik draws from police reports, court dockets, popular fiction, reformist exposés and harrowing life stories to tell startling stories of how these laws affected disabled people for nearly a century. 

Susan M. Schweik is Professor of English and co-director of the Disability Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War.

 

Recorded Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at Access Living.