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  • Begging the Question:Disability, Mendicancy, Speech and the Law
  • Susan Schweik (bio)

In this essay I will analyze some court cases in which disabled people demanded re-reading of the legal framing of their bodies and voices in American begging law. My aims here are twofold. First: precisely because the history of begging and the history of disability have so long been practically synonymous (Garland-Thomson 35), the twentieth-century disability rights movement formed itself to a significant extent by developing narrative alternatives to and repudiations of the dynamics of mendicancy. So, for instance, a participant in the landmark Section 504 disability rights demonstration in 1977 told a reporter: "We've been begging for a long time. Now we're demanding" (Treanor 76). Similarly, activist lawyer Robert Burgdorf, writing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Harvard Law Review in 1991, invoked a movement slogan: "You Gave Us Your Dimes, Now We Want Our Rights" (Burgdorf "The ADA" 426). This urgent project of rights-seeking has led to a radical forgetting of the figure of the beggar in disability history. But the beggar carries a reminder of something crucial: disability subjection in the United States is deployed and embedded, ideologically and structurally, in classed (as well as gendered and racialized), capitalist social relations. In the history of begging, as (almost?) everywhere, "disability history" and "poor people's history" profoundly intertwine. Second: legal approaches to the figure of the disabled beggar illuminate problematic narratives often applied to all disabled people, even those who seem to be placed in positions utterly different than the mendicant (such as the rights-demander, the hard-worker, the professional, the sheltered child, and so forth). In this case study of begging law a broader principle becomes clear: the law has persistently depoliticized disabled people (and disabled bodies, and disabling environments), in ways that disability movements and disability studies today are still striving to counter. [End Page 58]

I am at work on a scholarly history and analysis of the widespread late nineteenth-century urban law barring from public view anyone "who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object." This municipal ordinance has come to function as a kind of literal urban legend in disability studies—a narrative about disability in the modern city.1 It is often cited, without footnotes, as "City of Chicago Ordinance, 1911." But the first appearance of the ordinance that I have found was in San Francisco in 1867, and many cities across the country, over a span of fifty years, put it into their codebooks.2

The ordinance seems to have been welcomed particularly from the 1880s on in western and particularly Midwestern cities with strong, networked cultures of reform, towns bound to each other and the rest of the nation by railroad ties. Its zone extended eastward, too. The state of Pennsylvania passed a state version of the law in the early1890s. Some New Yorkers, inspired by Pennsylvania, made an unsuccessful attempt to get a city ordinance passed in 1895.3 Often called the "ugly law," the law is more accurately labeled the "unsightly beggar ordinance," for it emerged always, and was usually applied, in the context of crackdowns on mendicancy. The so-called ugly laws had an economic foundation in anti-begging laws inflected by categories of gender, ethnicity, and race.

I am still going to call my subject the "ugly law" here, partly because the law was ugly, partly for the provocative resonance of the term, and partly to honor the coining of the phrase by Robert and Marcia Pearce Burgdorf, who uncovered the ordinance in a landmark treatise on disability law in 1974 (Burgdorf and Burgdorf 855). A municipal librarian in Chicago insists that the ugly law is an urban legend. But his archives contain the ugly law's traces. The law did exist. What does not exist, as far as I know, is a single trace of a legal challenge to the ordinance.

There were, however, other legal challenges by disabled people to the begging stories told about them. Take, for instance, the 1911 effort by George Gray, the "legless newsboy of Times Square...


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