Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ugly Law

Did you know that it used to be against the law to be “ugly”?

Up until the 1970s, there was a law in Portland and many other cities that allowed for the arrest of anyone who was so “maimed, mutilated, or diseased” that his or her appearance disturbed the general public. It was an aesthetic law designed to keep cities gilded, much like homeowner associations are designed to uphold a certain visual standard in a given neighborhood. In 1972, two Portland State University students were arrested at the Hotcake House on Powell Boulevard under this law. Their story is documented in a movie called Music Within.

Richard Pimentel, a Portland native, grew up in an emotionally abusive home where he suffered neglect from his mentally ill mother. After his father died, Pimentel was handed off to his grandmother. He didn't speak until he was six years old and was thus declared “retarded” by a school guidance counselor. However, when he did start speaking, he knew he had found his passion, his “music within,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes described it. In spite of living in the dressing rooms of a strip club his dad had worked for (not as a dancer, for those who were wondering), Pimentel won two high school speech competitions. He was subsequently offered a scholarship to PSU by Dr. Ben Padrow, founder of the College Bowl. But when Pimentel went to see Padrow, he was told that he needed to live life and earn a point of view. Pimentel could definitely speak—he was gifted—but he had nothing to say. So instead of going to college, Pimentel went to Vietnam.

A mortar explosion sent Pimentel home early, but his hearing stayed in Vietnam. In an instant, he went from a disgruntled young man trying to find a point of view to a disabled veteran with little more than a shrill ringing in his ears. He had tinnitus and was almost completely deaf. He was still determined to be a professional speaker, so he enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program for returning soldiers. However, the Veterans Administration told him the could not justify paying for his college because he was deaf and therefore wouldn't be able to make anything of himself. Pimentel went back to Dr. Padrow, who helped convince the VA to give Pimentel a full scholarship, including room and board.

This was a necessary development in Pimentel's life because had he not gone to PSU, he would not have met Art Honeyman, the man who would change his life and, consequently, the lives of countless others. One day, Pimentel saw Honeyman, who had cerebral palsy, struggling to open a can of Coca-Cola. He went over to help Honeyman and told him not to bother trying to talk to him because he was deaf. Honeyman grabbed Pimentel and threw out a witty comeback nonetheless. To Pimentel's surprise, he could hear Honeyman. His voice was within his hearing range. Honeyman was the only person Pimentel could hear, and Pimentel was the only person who could understand Honeyman. Naturally, a strong friendship developed.

One night, the duo went out to get pancakes in celebration of Honeyman's birthday and were not well received by the new waitress:
"This waitress had never seen Art or anyone like him; she just stared," Pimentel recalls. "Finally, she said, 'I can't believe that something like you would come someplace where people are trying to eat. I won't serve you because I don't even know if you're a human being.'
"And she ended by saying, 'I thought people like you were supposed to die at birth.'
"I was stunned; I didn't know what to say. And Art turned to me and said, 'Why is the waitress talking about you this way? I don't think you look any worse than you usually do.'"*
The police were called and Pimentel and Honeyman were put in jail under the Ugly Law. This was the moment that changed Pimentel's passion from speech to sociology. He went on to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act and trained companies around the country in hiring and working with the disabled community. Honeyman became a professor at PSU. He and Pimentel remained friends until Honeyman's death in 2008.

The Ugly Laws that existed in many cities are no longer in place thanks in large part to these Portland heroes, and their contribution to widespread acceptance of people with disabilities has had profound effects on innumerable people. I highly recommend watching Music Within, which is currently streaming on Netflix.

*This quote was taken from a 2008 article published by Portland State Magazine.


  1. Hey, that's Shelley Lipkin playing the doctor in that video trailer! I'm sure of it; he was in my film Population: 2. Great guy!

  2. It's scary that our laws were so barbaric as recently as the seventies. But how awesome is it that PSU had a role in crafting the legislation that ended the ugly laws and the shameful practices they encouraged.

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