The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public

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In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, municipallaws targeting "unsightly beggars" sprang up in cities across America. Seeming to criminalize disability and thus offering a visceral example of discrimination, these “ugly laws” have become a sort of shorthand for oppression in disability studies, law, and the arts.

In this watershed study of the ugly laws, Susan M. Schweik uncovers the murky history behind the laws, situating the varied legislation in its historical context and exploring in detail what the laws meant. Illustrating how the laws join the history of the disabled and the poor, Schweik not only gives the reader a deeper understanding of the ugly laws and the cities where they were generated, she locates the laws at a crucial intersection of evolving and unstable concepts of race, nation, sex, class, and gender. Moreover, she explores the history of resistance to the ordinances, using the often harrowing life stories of those most affected by their passage. Moving to the laws’ more recent history, Schweik analyzes the shifting cultural memory of the ugly laws, examining how they have been used—and misused—by academics, activists, artists, lawyers, and legislators.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The stark photo by Paul Strand illustrating The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public conveys perfectly the realities and subtleties described in its pages—including the fear, pity, and revulsion with which the public so often regards those with physical disabilities.”

-California Lawyer,

“Shweik combines a sophisticated grasp of disability, critical race and social theory, extensive archival and legal research, close textual analysis, and broad reading in a wide range of historical and other literatures. Her account brings the insights of disability history and theory to bear on systems of exclusion, subordination, and othering more generally in American life as the United States entered the twentieth century... This is a powerful book, essential reading for scholars of disability, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, urban, legal, social movement, and twentieth-century history more generally—indeed, for anyone concerned about law and its power and the limits of that power to define borders of belonging.”-American Historical Review,

“Standing at the intersection of “disability history” and “poor people’s history,” opens a window on an attractive landscape for scholars to explore.” -Journal of American History,

“Overall, this is a thorough, careful, and sensible work, which is both fascinating and also moving as an account of social oppression of disabled people.”
-Metapsychology Online Reviews


“In analyzing the ugly laws, Schweik reveals how individuals have come to define their identities around work and self-sufficiency, and how the failure of those with disabilities to do so can result in character assassination of these individuals as frauds and morally bankrupt, diseased tricksters and thieves. A subtle and complex study.”


Publishers Weekly
In 1881, the Chicago City Code read, "Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed... shall not... expose himself to public view." These "ugly laws" began in San Francisco in 1867, then spread through the U.S. and abroad; many in the U.S. weren't repealed until the 1970s. English professor Schweik (A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War), co-director of UC Berkley's disabilities studies program, explores the emergence of these laws and their tragic consequences for thousands. Motivated largely by the desire to reduce beggar populations and to expand the role of charitable organizations, in practical terms the ugly laws meant "harsh policing; antibegging; systematized suspicion...; and structural and institutional repulsion of disabled people." Schweik discusses the nineteenth century conditions that created a demand for these laws, but notes how the resulting practices have carried through to the present. Schweik draws on a deep index of resources, from legal proceedings to out-of-print books, to tell the story of individuals long lost to history. Her detailed analysis will be of primary interest to those involved with the history of social justice in the U.S. and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 18 Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814740576
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 The Emergence of the Ugly Laws

1 Producing the Unsightly 23

2 Getting Ugly 40

3 The Law in Context 63

4 The Law in Language 89

5 Dissimulations 108

II At the Unsightly Intersection

6 Gender, Sexuality, and the Ugly Law 141

7 Immigration, Ethnicity, and the Ugly Law 165

8 Race, Segregation, and the Ugly Law 184

III The End of the Ugly Laws

9 The Right to the City 207

10 Rehabilitating the Unsightly 230

11 All about Ugly Laws (for Ten Cents) 255

Conclusion 279

Appendix The Ugly Laws 291

Notes 297

Bibliography 351

Index 405

About the Author 431

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