The Ugly Laws

Disability in Public

448 pages

18 illustrations

May, 2009

ISBN: 9780814740576



Also available in



Part of the The History of Disability series


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.

All books by Susan M. Schweik

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.


  • “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.”


  • “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 pagesincluding the fear, pity, and revulsion with which the public so often regards those with physical disabilities.”

    California Lawyer

  • “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

  • “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

  • “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

  • “Susan Schweik... has written a brilliant study of the ugly laws that illuminates this largely forgotten corner of the American history of body impairments, aesthetic norms, and urban spatial regulation. Schweik’s book serves, too, as a powerful demonstration of the vast potential of disability studies, like gender studies and queer theory with which it is frequently allied, to enlarge and to transform our understandings of what is frequently taken for granted as natural, to shed new light on the subterranean recesses of culture, and not simply to assist us to think “outside the box,” but to question whether there needs to be a box at all... The riotous encounters she analyzes, with their mixture of menace, chaos, conflicting cultures, and colorful characters, paint fascinating, Dickensian word pictures that bring to life the illusive, urban crowd and its antagonists in compelling and analytically pointed ways.”

    Journal of Social History

  • "Schweik delivers a compelling and insightful examination of disability norms, municipal law, and American culture. . . . She gives voice to the fascinating stories of the unsightly, the alienated, and the excluded. A valuable contribution for anyone interested in disability theory, poverty law and policy, and social history."

    —Paul Steven Miller, Director, Disability Studies Program, University of Washington

  • "Schweik uses ‘unsightly beggar’ laws in American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explore fundamental questions about disability, race, gender, and class in new and often startling ways. The book is beautifully written, delightfully thought-provoking, and deeply researched. It is quite honestly the best work of scholarship I have read in a long time."

    —Douglas C. Baynton, author of Forbidden Signs

  • "The Ugly Laws is a focused and deeply mined interrogation of a familiar cultural figure—the unsightly beggar—that has not until now been critically examined. Schweik is a virtuosa of both close reading and the big picture, merging historical scholarship with analysis of the discursive elaboration and cultural work of the unsightly beggar figure. The Ugly Laws is an essential text."

    —Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies

  • "Thoughtful, comprehensive, insightful, readable, and full of interesting characters and colorful digressions, The Ugly Laws is an admirable piece of scholarship and a significant contribution to the literature."

    —Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., author of Americans with Disabilities

  • "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."

    Publisher’s Weekly

  • “What is ugliness, and how ugly is too ugly? Perverse though such discrimination might seem today, Schweik suggests that re-examining such laws ‘might prove very useful as a way of foregrounding the inevitable ambiguity of the category of ‘disability.’”

    The Chronicle Review

  • “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.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “This cultural history is a revelation, rich with insights that let us ponder our own encounters with disability and the categories we make.”

    The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  • "This book is, as Schweik convincingly caharacterizes it, 'a history of the harm done by—let us allow the phrase some force—lack of regard.' It provides useful background for understanding current efforts to encode and enforce protections for the disabled and disadvantaged."

    —Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, The Christian Century

  • "The range of concerns illuminated by Schweik's materialist and historicist focus on the ordinances proves that The Ugly Laws has succeeded, as the book's poignant last words put it, in showing how much more we understand when we begin to face the history of disability'"

    —Jean Franzino, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

  • “Part investigative reportage, historiography, anecdote, legal study, cultural critique, and life writing, Schweik’s Ugly Laws is an important and necessary addition to disability studies scholarship and also happens to be a fascinating piece of storytelling.  […]  There is much to applaud in The Ugly Laws.  Schweik extends disability studies scholarship by taking an interdisciplinary approach to the history of disability.  Her research and writing provide insights and revelations in regards to disability discrimination.  Scholars in disability studies, rhetoric, and related fields of study will find much value in her contribution.”

    JAC: Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics