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  • The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public
  • David A. Gerber
The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. By Susan M. Schweik (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009. xii plus 429 pp.).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of American municipalities and states passed "unsightly beggar" laws, the point of which was to clear the streets of diseased, maimed, and disfigured individuals who attempted to earn money by calling attention to their bodies. By all accounts there were a great many such people in the streets, especially of the largest cities. In a pre-welfare state society, injured, ill and disabled military veterans, older people, widows, victims of industrial work accidents, and the general population of impaired and chronically ill people who lacked private support networks, or were not able to take advantage of what few public programs might exist to assist the impoverished, and those who could not or were not allowed because of discrimination to work, had little choice if they were to survive but to beg. Arguments for such laws ranged broadly from the effects of these beggars in retarding the trade of the commercial businesses they situated themselves near while soliciting money to the discomfort and disgust they were said to cause in "normal" folk who chanced by them while in the streets. Discomfort and disgust were not deemed simply a matter of civic aesthetics. In keeping with the theory of maternal impression advanced in contemporary obstetrics, and popularized at the time in examples like that of the so-called "Elephant Man," it was widely believed that the shock to pregnant women from the sight of these mendicants, might leave an equivalent impression on the fetus they carried, and in consequence produce disabilities, illnesses, and monstrosities. These laws, as the author of this study rightly maintains, are a significant example of state-sponsored disabilism, for in denying many disabled people the right to make a living on the streets in lieu of conventional alternatives that were restricted by discrimination, they deepened the helplessness and dependence that were thought to be the lot of the disabled.

Such laws remained on the books for many years, variously enforced or totally neglected, to be resisted at times by those who were their objects and their plebian allies among contemporary street people and pedestrians. By the mid-twentieth century they had come to be seen by humanitarians as a relic of barbarism to be replaced by state-directed institutionalization and treatment. In the late twentieth century, however, they became evidence for the nascent disability rights movement of the wholesale violation of the citizenship rights of people with disabilities. As such, they were a potent symbol of the largely unacknowledged oppression that gave inspiration to a social movement, and that was employed to grab the conscience of the able bodied public. It was then that they came by the name "ugly laws," in full awareness of the dual meaning in this context of ugly, as both simultaneously mean-spirited and unsightly.

Susan Schweik, a Professor of English and co-director of the Disability Studies Program at Berkeley, 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 [End Page 273] think "outside the box," but to question whether there needs to be a box at all. It was not long ago that disability studies was widely seen as yet another awkward and pointless imposition of identity politics on the disciplines and on the curriculum, demanded by embittered, alienated activists and conceded by cowardly administrators intent on avoiding bad publicity, even if it meant wasting scarce resources. Studies such as Schweik's demonstrate how wrong those charges are, for far from being pointless, much contemporary work within...


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