By Bree Davies, P.U.M.A. Equitable Communities Strategist

At various points in American history, it has been legal to discriminate against people with disabilities. More than 100 years before passing the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, so-called “ugly laws” were on the books in states across the country. These laws were created to keep people with disabilities and people with visible physical differences from being a part of public life.

Recently, the P.U.M.A. staff sat down with Rosemary Horita-McDonnell to learn about “ableism,” “universal design” and the history of the disability rights movement. Horita-McDonnell is the youth transition coordinator for Atlantis Community, Inc., a Denver-based organization and independent living center that has been at the heart of Colorado’s disability rights movement since the 1970s.

Horita-McDonnell spoke to many issues community members with disabilities face every day, beginning our intimate conversation with a historical dive into America’s legally constituted discrimination of people with disabilities.

An “ugly law” is as awful as it sounds: a legal form of discrimination intent on removing “undesirable” people – those with disabilities and physical differences. Through a Chicago city code established in 1881, an alderman named James Peevey sought to eliminate people he considered “street obstructions” from the public eye, those who were otherwise “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.”

This type of law became widespread in other cities, allowing for the forcible removal (and sometimes, the arrest) of people with disabilities. Though the last of these laws were overturned close to a century later in the mid 1970s, some of the same language used in “ugly laws” is being used today in the form of sit-lie ordinances and laws against urban camping.

While “ugly laws” can seem far from how many of us see people in the world, Horita-McDonnell tied the ideas behind these laws to ableism, something able-bodied people take part in every day. Ableism is defined as: “The practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”*

Horita-McDonnell’s presentation got me thinking about “ugly laws,” their connection to ableism and how both of these concepts function in the worlds of urban planning, economic development and the growth, stabilization and development of shared public spaces like downtown areas.

When looking at my own city, Denver, I thought about ways I had previously viewed the concept of inaccessibility – missing or broken sidewalks, older streets without curb cuts, intersections that serve the interest of cars over the safety of people. But then I looked deeper at the laws that exist here that govern our shared public spaces and how they influence accessibility through something as subtle as the perception of “who” is invited to access a space. Or, by reexamining things we see as unquestionable assets to a city – like bike share programs or the latest trend of dockless scooters – I noticed the ways people with disabilities are not thought about as part of the larger community. Horita-McDonnell explained that these “innovations,” while serving many and working toward ecologically healthier cities, leave the disabled community out of the conversation, going unseen as a crucial part of the population who also desire easier, lower cost, accessible ways to get around.

Beyond those assets being used by able-bodied people, when they are not in use bikes and scooters are often left in the public right-of-way – something an able-bodied person may be able to quickly bypass, while at the same time acting as unavoidable barriers to someone using a wheelchair. Even use of the term “walkability,” which is a common metric in the planning world, connotes a community of a certain ability; “walkable, bikeable” streets are not streets for all people.

So, where do we go from here? The answer is both simple and complex, but it begins with rethinking how we as a whole community experience our shared public spaces. Who belongs? Who is welcome? Who has access? What are the barriers to access? What can we do to change them?

*Definition of ableism taken from StopAbleism.org


Further reading:

“Flashback: How an ‘ugly law’ stayed on Chicago’s books for 93 years,” Chicago Tribune, 6/23/16

A timeline of “Ugly Laws,” Eugenics Archive

Universal Design, National Disability Authority

More on Denver’s Atlantis Community