In June 2009 Riam Dean, a British student, took Abercrombie and Fitch to court for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. Ms. Dean, who has a prosthetic arm, was deemed not to conform to the company's 'look policy', and was informed that she could not work on the shop floor until the winter uniform arrived and she could wear a concealing cardigan.

In May 1881 Chicago city council passed an ordinance ruling that 'any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object […] shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine' (1-2). This was the first of the infamous 'unsightly beggar ordinances', or 'ugly laws', within the USA. A febrile concept frequently drawn upon in disability criticism — from Robert Burgdorf Jr., original author of the ADA, to contemporary disability studies scholar Stuart Murray — there has been little sustained investigation into the origins and effects of the ugly laws. That Susan Schweik's monograph on the ugly laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was published in the same year that a young woman was subject to dismissal on the grounds that a prosthetic limb disabled her from 'looking great while exhibiting individuality' (A&F 'look policy') indicates that this book is not only important in terms of historical research but speaks into the contemporary aesthetics of popular culture and disability.

In the preface to The Ugly Laws Schweik professes that she is not a historian, and that her intent in the text is to examine the discourse — legal, journalistic, autobiographical — that surrounds the ugly laws. In the process, she delves deep into the legal debates at the turn of the twentieth century regarding the position and rights of disabled beggars and street vendors in America, presenting court case minutiae and political tracts and cross-examining the language and rhetoric therein. Prefacing her work, Schweik quotes a contemporary New York lawyer, commenting after winning his clients the right to panhandle in the subways: 'it's hard to get real excited about winning the right to beg' (viii). At times, the sheer mass of material Schweik covers in The Ugly Laws may threaten to overwhelm the thread of her argument (and the reader) — but there is never any danger of indifference.

Schweik's study is divided into three sections. The first deals with the historical backdrop to the emergence of the ugly laws: its precursors in vagrancy and begging legislation, both in America and the UK; the rhetoric and language used by charitable organisations to justify the proposals; the contribution of a growing middle-class in the efforts to enforce the legislation. Part II, 'At the Unsightly Intersection', discusses the points at which the ugly laws (and disability more generally) overlapped with other minority identities: bringing gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity into the melting pot, along with class. Schweik describes how popular accounts of the ugly laws have 'tended to frame the subject of the ordinances as purely and abstractly disabled: ungendered (that is, male), unraced (that is, white), without nationality (that is, American), and unsexualized (that is, heterosexual, but only in default)' (18). She goes on to detail how not only did the penalties for breaching the ugly laws vary from city to city, but also differed between men and women, American citizens and recent immigrants, etc.

The final section of the text discusses resistance to the ordinances: resistance that was largely ineffectual, and — at least until the dissolution (astonishingly late) of the laws in the 1970s — openly scorned by the establishment. It is at this point that it would have been interesting to see Schweik make a clearer comparison to contemporary politics and aesthetics: she mentions Plymouth city council's 2004 begging policy ('any unsightly beggars are quickly removed from the city centre'), drawing attention to the retention of the phrase 'unsightly beggar', and to the case of Robichard vs. RPH Management (the owners of MacDonald's), where an employee was told that she would 'never be in management' because of a birthmark on her face (284), but leaves further questions unasked. Where were the beggars removed to, in Plymouth? What constitutes 'unsightly' in today's society? Are we to presume that customers of MacDonald's are of a hardier nature than its management, or those who frequent Abercrombie and Fitch? What prompts the need for a 'look policy'?

These questions aside, The Ugly Laws remains a substantial piece of scholarship, providing in-depth and meticulously researched insight into one of the most infamous examples of disability discrimination — and is a useful resource for anyone working within disability studies.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2010 Hannah Tweed

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371