The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States
19. Mobility, Key to Independence
Once upon a time, it is said, there lived in a German village a blind old woman who was led to church every Sunday by a gander, which seized a fold of her skirt in its bill, conducted her to a pew, remained in the churchyard until it saw people leaving the service, made its way back to the pew, and brought its mistress back home again.
"It seems scarcely credible," was the comment of the man who reported this possibly apocryphal tale in a "treatise on the science of typhlology" published in London in 1872. What is more incredible is that the context in which this citation was offered contained a series of trenchant observations and recommendations it took the world the better part of a century to put into practice.
The author was William Hanks Levy, an articulate and energetic blind man who was credited with a dynamic role in establishing home handicraft industries and workshops for the British blind. Just before he died, he summed up his life's experience in his "treatise," titled Blindness and the Blind. It contained a chapter captioned "On the Blind Walking Alone, and of Guides" in which Levy said:
What could blind people do to avoid turning into vegetables? Levy thought it "desirable to offer a few hints." The first was to use a cane, and his description of how the cane should be constructed and employed uncannily foreshadowed the modern "long cane" technique. He wrote of desirable posture for the blind person: "Perfectly erect, that his face may not be injured by coming in contact with various objects." He wrote of how to judge step-downs and step-ups, of when and how to ask for sighted assistance in crossing heavily traveled streets, of how to use hearing and smell as clues to the environment, of why thick shoes were undesirable because they interfered with using the "muscular sense as exercised through the feet."
Levy also had something to say about guides, two-footed and four-footed. As to human guides, his chief comment was a reflection of the times he lived in: a warning against a blind father keeping his children out of school to help him. Dogs were another matter: "To lead his master through the most crowded thoroughfares unhurt, to turn to the right or left when bidden, to cross roads only when quite safe … and to refuse to quit his charge for the choicest bone even when pining with hunger, are but a few of the virtues of this most instructive quadruped."
Two generations earlier, Johann Wilhelm Klein, whose pioneering work in the Hapsburg Empire earned him a stature comparable to that of Valentin Haüy in France and Samuel Gridley Howe in the United States as one of "the three great founding fathers of the education of the blind," had described in his Lehrbuch zum Unterrichte der Blinden ("Textbook on the Education of the Blind") a type of rigid harness for a dog guide which closely approximated the basic principle of what is used today. Moreover, Klein, whose book was published in 1819, outlined a method of training both dog and master that is also not essentially different from modern procedure.
In no aspect of work for the blind is there greater unanimity as to need—or greater controversy as to method—than in mobility teaching. Loss of the power to move about freely and safely is unarguably the greatest deprivation inflicted by blindness. The problem was less acute in earlier centuries, when not only blind people but the great majority of others seldom ventured far from their native soil. Life patterns grew less static with the industrial revolution, as great sections of the population shifted from farm to town, from town to metropolis, from one part of the country to another, in search of economic betterment. The greatest acceleration of all has taken place in the twentieth century, thanks to the automobile and the airplane and the changed socio-economic climate which brought about a surge of social mobility. For blind people to be members of the larger society, freedom of movement has become a "must."
It is no easy task. Mobility is keyed to a knowledge of the immediate environment, and vision, it is said, provides 80 percent (some authorities put the figure even higher) of the information needed for a person to move securely through space. The other senses also supply data, but vision is so dominant in its range and power that it assumes control of the total sensory apparatus.
That it is, in fact, possible to overcome the absence or loss of this integrative sense by means of efficient command and determined reorganization of the remaining senses is an idea so difficult for the sighted person to grasp that it has given rise to the mistaken theory of automatic "sensory compensation" which figures so largely in the popular mystique of blindness.
The term "reorganization" is not really applicable to the person born blind since, never having had the sense of vision, he must create rather than revise a structure based on his other senses. The blind child thus confronts a somewhat different set of problems from the person who could once see. But there are similarities as well. In 1946 Hector Chevigny, a writer who lost his vision in early middle age, provided a vivid description of what those problems are:
Chevigny learned to spare his bruised shins with the help of a dog guide. So did several thousand others. A much larger number mastered the cane. The largest group of all, however continued to depend on human guides to navigate safely. Partly this was because the majority of blind people were elderly and had less need and less capacity to undergo the rigors of mobility training. There was also another, somewhat subtler, reason that contributed to the decades of delay in the development of independent mobility skills. It was the self-denigrating belief that blindness should be made as inconspicuous as possible, and that the use of a dog guide or a distinctive cane attracted undesirable public attention.
That remnants of this viewpoint lingered well into the contemporary era could be seen from the initial resistance of some leaders in work for the blind to the proposal for a dog guide movement in the United States. Even so imaginative a man as Robert Irwin was unable to perceive the potential at first.
(To Irwin's credit, he not only kept an open mind but soon lent the movement his active support, even though he personally "would not be caught using one of the blooming things." He was also big enough, in later years, to tell colleagues, as a joke on himself, that his greatest mistake in office was to have turned down the opportunity to sponsor the nation's first dog guide school, an opportunity that proved to be a financial bonanza.)
Irwin and his contemporaries knew that for centuries blind people had used dogs to lead them, but their image of this procedure was of "a dirty little cur dragging a blind man along at the end of a string," an image that another early doubter, Edward E. Allen, called "the very index and essence of incompetence and beggary." It took a wealthy Philadelphia woman socialite and a hot-tempered, rebellious blind youth from Nashville, Tennessee, to change the minds of the dubious and to capture the hearts, imagination and generosity of the American people.
Both the scientific training of dog guides and the invention of braille were offshoots of ideas originally developed for military purposes. The German army effectively employed search dogs on the battlefields of World War I. German shepherd dogs were trained in Oldenburg under the direction of Dr. Gerhard Stalling, a town privy councillor, who conceived the idea that these intelligent and responsive canines could also be educated as guides for war-blinded soldiers. A branch school was opened in Breslau and several more founded in other German cities. A decade after the end of the war it was estimated that close to 4,000 dogs were in use in Germany as guides for both veterans and civilians. The former received their animals as a government-issued "prosthesis" and the latter through organizations for the blind supported by voluntary contributions as well as by state and municipal welfare grants.
French military authorities also experimented, during and after World War I, with training dogs to lead blinded soldiers. Their approach, however, was a narrow one, centered on familiarizing a dog with his master's daily routes so it could obey commands to proceed to specific destinations. Neither specialized breeding of animals suited to the guiding task nor the use of trained instructors figured in the French system, which soon died out.
These European developments were no secret to American workers for the blind. The 1923 AAWB convention in Janesville, Wisconsin, heard a talk by a German dog trainer on "the training of the shepherd dog to act as guide." Apparently neither the talk nor the accompanying demonstration aroused much interest, for when an article on the same subject appeared four years later in the Saturday Evening Post, it took the field by storm.
The author of the Post article was an American woman of impeccable social standing (she was the daughter of Charles Custis Harrison, a former provost of the University of Pennsylvania) whose motives were clearly philanthropic. Dorothy Harrison Eustis was the owner of the large estate "Fortunate Fields" on the slopes of Mount Pelegrin in Vevey, Switzerland, where she and her husband, George, had spent years working on the scientific breeding and training of dogs for police work, guard duty, army communications, and other practical duties. They specialized in German shepherds, a breed which, Mrs. Eustis claimed, had been "overbred, overfed and underexercised" as show dogs in the United States. The shepherd, she wrote, was "a Niagara of energy going to waste, an intelligence waiting to be used intelligently, a public servant and useful citizen."
In 1926 the Eustises had visited Germany. What they observed in Potsdam, in one of the schools where dogs were trained for use by the blind, led to the November 1927 Post article, and this, in turn, brought the author a number of letters, one of them an almost incoherently excited note from Nashville, Tennessee. The writer was Morris Frank, who had lost his sight three years earlier and coped with his blindness by using paid helpers to get to and from his home to the office where he sold insurance and to Vanderbilt University where he was taking courses. What distinguished Frank's letter from all the others written by blind people wanting dogs for themselves was his statement, "I should like very much to forward this work in this country." There was also something Mrs. Eustis found irresistibly appealing in his statement that blind people "do not require sympathy but a laughing word and pat on the back."
Her response, some months later, was in the form of a challenge. Would he be willing to come to Switzerland to be trained with a dog? She would provide the transportation and have him as her house guest if he would contribute the time and effort. By early April of 1928, two weeks after his twentieth birthday, Morris Frank was on his way to Switzerland.
Bringing a blind youth across the Atlantic was a compromise. At about the time her article appeared, Mrs. Eustis had visited the States and made contact with a number of organizations for the blind, including the New York Lighthouse. With a letter of introduction from Daisy Rogers of that agency, Mrs. Eustis came to see Robert Irwin in mid-January of 1928 to ask whether the Foundation would be willing to launch a program to train dogs as guides for blind people. She offered to come to America with her husband, possibly accompanied by some of their own dogs, and to spend four months training the animals, teaching instructors how to train both the dogs and their masters, and instructing an initial class of blind people in how to work with dog guides. The Eustises would put on this demonstration free of charge, provided the Foundation agreed to continue the work. Two instructors, working full time, could "turn out 60 to 70 dogs and their blind masters a year." The cost, she estimated, would come to about $150 per dog, irrespective of whether already trained animals were imported and taught to follow commands in English, or suitable dogs were bought from American kennels and trained from the beginning.
Irwin presented this proposal to the Foundation's executive committee the following week without recommendation pro or con. In the absence of an affirmative staff endorsement, it is not surprising to read in the minutes of January 24, 1928: "The Committee expressed sympathy and interest in the idea. It was the consensus of opinion, however, that the budget for 1928 would not permit our taking on any additional activities for the year."
The minutes show that only three of the five members of the executive committee were present on that occasion: Prudence Sherwin, vice-president; Olin H. Burritt, secretary; and Herbert H. White, treasurer. M. C. Migel, a devoted animal lover, might well have made a difference in the decision, but he was absent, as was the committee's fifth member, H. Randolph Latimer, and three members out of five constituted a quorum.
Although the decision was undoubtedly influenced by Irwin's lack of enthusiasm, it was by no means capricious. Explaining that the Foundation had "taken on so many new activities during the past year," Irwin also voiced some of his own hesitancies over the dog guide proposal in a letter to Mrs. Eustis:
He tactfully refrained from adding his private conviction that anyone who could afford such a sum could afford to hire sighted guides, a practice he himself followed when traveling unaccompanied to other cities.
Nevertheless, Irwin was impressed with Dorothy Eustis and willing to help her in any way short of taking on her project. Soon after her visit he had a letter from Robert I. Bramhall, director of the Massachusetts Division of the Blind, indicating that some local philanthropists were interested in sponsoring the training of dog guides. His answer: "If Massachusetts will undertake the job, I should be delighted." He also informed Bramhall that, quite apart from Mrs. Eustis, the dog school in Potsdam had recently been in direct touch with the Foundation, offering to supply thirty or forty trained dogs plus the services of trainers, but that the prices quoted were high and the offer had been rejected. This, in point of fact, was the second approach from Potsdam; an earlier one had been made in 1925.
By this time Mrs. Eustis had embarked on her alternative course of action and issued her invitation to Morris Frank.* He called on Irwin before embarking on the transatlantic trip, and again in mid-July, upon his return. Irwin described the two encounters in his memoirs:
Dorothy Eustis' article in the Saturday Evening Post had been titled "The Seeing Eye," a phrase drawn from Proverbs 20:12—"The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them." Frank's return from Switzerland on the Cunard liner Tuscania was extensively covered by the press, and he took the occasion to announce that he and the Eustises would organize a Seeing Eye Association in the United States.
Now it was Morris Frank's turn to be flooded with mail from blind people and their friends. When would dogs be available? When could training begin? In December 1928 Elliott S. (Jack) Humphrey arrived in Nashville from Fortunate Fields accompanied by two trained dogs. The first class could now begin in a few weeks.
A student of animal genetics with long experience in breeding and training animals of all types, Humphrey had worked with the Eustises in Switzerland and, in preparation for launching the program in America, had spent some time observing the dog guide schools in Germany. The two dogs Humphrey brought to Nashville were German; they had not been secured from Potsdam but from one of the other German dog schools. The Potsdam school, which viewed Mrs. Eustis' enterprise as commercial competition, refused to supply her with animals and followed up the refusal by sending an indignant letter to the Foundation in January 1929 challenging Humphrey's ability to teach dogs the specific techniques of leading the blind merely on the basis of a few weeks of observation. This might have been a valid enough doubt in relation to an ordinary man, but it underestimated Humphrey, whom an enthusiastic admirer described as having "a mind that absorbs information like blotting paper."
George Eustis was now out of the picture; he and his wife had just been divorced. But Dorothy Eustis soon arrived in Nashville, and stayed long enough to have Seeing Eye incorporated in Tennessee with herself as president and Morris Frank as managing director, to secure pledges of $2,500 a year for three years from each of three friends, and to watch the first two blind men taught to work with Humphrey's dogs.
Before long another personality came into the picture. A retired business executive who bred dogs on his New Jersey farm, Willi H. Ebeling became, first, a supplier of shepherds for Humphrey to train, then a fascinated spectator of what the dogs were able to do with and for blind people, then a volunteer participant in the work, then a host to Seeing Eye trainers and dogs when the New Jersey climate was deemed better suited than Tennessee for all-weather training and, finally, the first executive vice-president of the organization once it had established permanent quarters in New Jersey. Ebeling served as Seeing Eye's executive head from 1934 to 1954; following his retirement he became a trustee and remained a member of the board until his death in 1961 at the age of seventy-nine.
When Ebeling retired he was replaced as executive director by George Werntz, Jr., who had been his understudy since coming to Seeing Eye in 1950 from Colgate University, where he had been director of admissions. Werntz, who was continuing in office at the end of 1972, was a protégé of Henry A. Colgate of the soap manufacturing family, whose philanthropic interests included not only the university which bore the family name, but also Seeing Eye. Colgate became a trustee in 1934 and in 1940 followed Dorothy Eustis into the presidency, a post he occupied until his death in 1957.
Seeing Eye's fifth founding figure came upon the scene a little later. As soon as the program was under way in the United States, Dorothy Eustis returned to Switzerland to establish a Seeing Eye School (L'Oeil qui Voit) to educate instructors who could initiate dog guide movements in other European countries. Of the three elements that made up a dog guide program—dogs, trainers, and blind users—the trainers were the hardest to come by, due to the unique combination of qualities needed to work successfully with both dogs and people, the long and arduous nature of the apprenticeship and the exceptional degree of physical stamina required. Ebeling wrote in 1949 that in the 15 years he had been head of Seeing Eye "55 men have started on the road of apprentice instructors and only five have proved able to attain the goal."
The high fallout rate described by Ebeling was typical. In 1931 Mrs. Eustis had reported that "in Germany, a nation of dog lovers, dog trainers and dog educators, they have been able to retain as competent instructors of dog guides only between 5 percent and 8 percent of the selected apprentices who started the work." Of the many instructors she attempted to train at L'Oeil qui Voit until she closed it down in 1933, only three men ultimately made the grade. One went to England, one to Italy, and the third, William Debetaz, came to the United States.
Debetaz was a twenty-three-year-old French-Swiss whom Morris Frank described as "wiry and as full of bounding energy as the animals under his command." He not only stayed the course but in 1942 was placed in charge of instructors at Seeing Eye after Humphrey resigned to train dogs for military use in World War II. Humphrey later moved to the west to work at cattle breeding; he was eighty-two years old and living in Arizona in 1972. Debetaz was elevated to vice-presidency of Seeing Eye in 1946 and remained in charge of training until he retired in 1971.
If Dorothy Eustis was disappointed in the international aspirations she had held for L'Oeil qui Voit, her disappointment must have been assuaged by the extraordinary success of the American movement. By the time she died in 1946 at the age of sixty, Seeing Eye had supplied close to a thousand blind Americans with working dogs. It had acquired a large property in New Jersey where students and staff could be housed, kennels maintained, breeding and training facilities created. It had won so handsome a measure of public support, both moral and financial, as to inspire the flattery of imitation. Most meaningful of all, the sight of a blind man confidently striding along with his dog guide had come to evoke public admiration rather than pity.
While Robert Irwin never overcame either his personal aversion to dog guides or his skepticism that they could be the answer to mobility for most blind people (and in the latter belief he was right, for no more than a small fraction, 2 percent at most, have ever been able to make use of dog guides), he did not stint his cooperation during Seeing Eye's formative years. Article after article appeared in the Outlook describing the successful experiences of blind people with dog guides. When an experimental effort was made to conduct a training program in New York City instead of Nashville, the event was fully reported in enthusiastic terms. When similar local trials were then scheduled for California, Irwin induced the railroads to grant half-fare transportation for two trainers and 12 dogs. He wrote cordial letters of introduction for Mrs. Eustis to officials in Canada and in England to pave the way for programs there. In what was probably an ultimate expression of confidence, he urged that she be put on the program of the World Conference on Work for the Blind held in New York in April 1931.
A few months later, Dorothy Eustis spent $30,000 of her personal funds to buy Seeing Eye's first permanent quarters, a spacious old house and outbuildings on 56 acres of land in Whippany, New Jersey, where all the needed training facilities for both dogs and people could be centered. At this point, demonstration classes in various cities were discontinued. Instead, Seeing Eye sent Morris Frank out on the road as a field agent, to crisscross the country addressing groups of blind people, talking to agency and school executives, and encouraging suitable candidates to apply for admission to the program that could make them as mobile as Morris himself.
Frank carried on this field service for more than two decades. When he retired in 1956 he was succeeded by Robert H. Whitstock, a youthful graduate of Harvard Law School and of Seeing Eye itself. Whitstock was elected Seeing Eye's vice-president for field services in 1967. In 1971 he was named president-elect of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, to take office following the 1973 AAWB convention.
There was one more element Seeing Eye needed to round out its initial organization, and that was someone who knew as much about the field of work for the blind as Jack Humphrey knew about dogs. In 1934 Mary Dranga Campbell came on staff as head of the social service division. A member of the redoubtable Campbell family to be described in a later chapter, she remained with Seeing Eye until retirement in 1945. Her experience with the problems of blind people antedated World War I.
Once the program at Whippany was well under way, Dorothy Eustis devoted herself to using her Social Register connections to build a circle of influential supporters for Seeing Eye. At a public banquet sponsored by leaders of New York's business and financial community, Alexander Woollcott's story-spinning imagination was captured by the combination of two irresistible subjects: dogs and blindness. He became one of Seeing Eye's most devoted fans and used his journalistic and broadcasting outlets to spread word of its work far and wide.
Within a remarkably few years, considering the depressed state of the economy, Seeing Eye built a membership constituency whose annual contributions met its operating expenses. By 1936 it was on sufficiently firm ground to think about the future. The average working life of a dog was eight years. The average working life of the blind man who depended on a dog could be three times, four times, even five times as long. Just as St. Dunstan's in England had felt itself obligated to accumulate enough capital to insure lifelong care of its war-blinded men, Seeing Eye felt it had a moral responsibility to insure that a person whose dog guide died would not be plunged back into dependency because of inability to obtain a replacement.
Calculations made in 1936 indicated that if a capital fund of $1,600,000 could be raised, its yield would assure the organization's continued ability to serve those it had liberated. A "security fund" of that size seemed a remote goal at the time, but in two decades, thanks to legacies and increasingly successful membership campaigns, the goal had been so far exceeded that, in 1958, Seeing Eye announced its reserves made it unnecessary to ask members to renew their annual gifts. That same year saw it take its first step toward becoming a donor rather than a recipient of funds. It initiated a grants program to support research and training in ophthalmology, in mobility and other rehabilitative services for blind people, and in veterinary medicine. Beginning with a $30,000 construction grant to the Retina Foundation of Boston University's School of Medicine in 1958, the grants program grew from year to year. By the end of 1972 the 15-year cumulative total was $5,886,000.
Recognition that these impressive contributions to the welfare of blind persons owed much to the initiative of George Werntz, Jr., was given tangible form when he received AAWB's Shotwell Memorial Award in 1968. It was under Werntz' administration that in 1965 Seeing Eye moved from Whippany to a 120-acre site on the outskirts of Morristown, New Jersey. As of 1972 the organization could point to totals of 6,300 dogs serving upward of 3,800 blind persons since its founding. Its annual report showed a net worth in excess of $21 million. Its income for the year was close to $2,250,000, of which less than $35,000 was unsolicited membership contributions and about $14,000 came from student payments.
The last figure reflected the philosophy, initiated in 1934, that there were positive psychological and rehabilitative values in asking each person who acquired a Seeing Eye dog to pay a small part of the cost. The fee, $150 for a first dog, $50 for a replacement, was to be paid by the person himself, not by a sponsoring group or benefactor. If need be, it could be paid in small installments. In the early days, Seeing Eye also defrayed part of the trainee's transportation costs to and from New Jersey if necessary; it later liberalized this policy to pay full transportation expenses from all parts of the country without regard to financial need.
The sole exceptions to the fee policy were the war-blinded veterans. The day after Pearl Harbor, Seeing Eye announced it would supply dog guides to the war-blinded without expense to either the veteran or the United States Government. Its trustees adopted a similar resolution in 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean conflict, and maintained the same policy with respect to servicemen blinded in Vietnam.
The year 1958 was historic in a third sense. It saw completion and publication of Guide Dog Training for Blind Persons, a segment of a three-year study made under Seeing Eye sponsorship by the Research Center of Columbia University's New York School of Social Work. The authors asserted that only about 3,500 people, representing 1 percent of America's legally blind population at the time, used dog guides; they estimated that another 3,500 blind persons had the requisite capacity, motivation, need and desire for dogs, and that there were at most 8,000 additional persons who might constitute a "secondary reservoir" of potential users, but who were not apt to enter a training program for one reason or another.
After surveying all of the nation's then existing dog guide schools, the study concluded that their "estimated current capacity is slightly in excess of the estimated immediate potential. … Expansion of dog guide training facilities is not supported by the evidence."
A number of factors had led to this study and gave its findings importance. One was the intense interest in mobility; "the new religion of the Fifties," one observer called it. The more immediate pressure was that new dog guide schools might continue to spring up unchecked at a time when none of the schools, not even the best-known and oldest-established, was operating at capacity.
As of 1972, there were nine dog guide schools in operation in the United States. Three decades earlier there had been thrice as many—19 in California alone. Most of these were one- or two-man operations, launched by dog breeders and others to take advantage of wartime emotions and of the federal law (P.L. 309) which appropriated funds to supply war-blinded veterans with dogs. The California situation in particular reflected such blatant abuses of public confidence that the state legislature acted in 1947 to require licensing of dog guide schools and their personnel on the basis of specific criteria. So strict were these criteria—the trainer's license, for example, required that the candidate "be able to demonstrate by actual blindfold test under traffic conditions his ability to train a guide dog with whom a blind person would be safe"—that 16 of the 19 California schools soon disappeared. The California law was still on the books in 1972; no other state had as yet enacted a comparable statute.
California License No. 1 was awarded to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. Founded in 1942, this school was the nation's second largest dog guide training establishment in 1972. Originally organized to serve blind people living west of the Mississippi, it later expanded its coverage to the entire United States. While not as heavily endowed as Seeing Eye, the San Rafael school was sufficiently well financed (its 1971 annual report showed assets in excess of $4 million) to have completed a $600,000 building and modernization program to accommodate 32 trainees at a time. Much of the organization's growth was attributable to the forceful leadership of William F. Johns, who was its executive director from soon after its inception until his death in 1969.
Another of the three licensed California schools in operation in 1972 was International Guiding Eyes, Inc. in Hollywood, established in 1948 under the aegis of a socially minded labor union, the International Association of Machinists. The third school was Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind in Topanga, incorporated in 1952. The westernmost American dog guide school was also the youngest: Eye of the Pacific Guide Dogs, established in Honolulu in 1955.
Two schools were located in the Middle West although they, like the others, served people from all over. Next in seniority to Seeing Eye was Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Michigan, which was founded in 1939 at the initiative of a group of midwestern Lions Clubs. Following an initial period in which dogs were trained in a local kennel, Leader Dogs obtained the services of an experienced trainer formerly employed by Seeing Eye and mounted an essentially similar program. During the wartime period of proliferating dog guide schools, officials of Leader Dogs appealed to the American Foundation for the Blind to establish standards and an accrediting body that would protect blind people, and particularly blinded veterans, from profiteering operators in the field. The Foundation agreed that the problem existed, but confessed itself unequipped to offer a solution at the time. He was not even convinced, Robert Irwin wrote, that there was need for more than one such school to serve the nation. This was hardly encouraging to the operators of the country's second school, and the matter was dropped.
Leader Dogs went on to gain a firm foothold; at the end of 1972 it reported it had equipped 2,200 blind persons with nearly 3,500 dogs since its founding. Its 1972 budget was close to $600,000, more than half of which came from Lions Clubs in midwestern states.
The other midwestern school, Pilot Dogs, Inc., in Columbus, Ohio, was incorporated in 1950 but was, in fact, the outgrowth of a much earlier effort, antedating even Seeing Eye and begun by a Minnesota dog breeding enthusiast named John L. Sinykin, who had started his kennels as a hobby in the early 1920s. Sinykin had imported a trained German dog, retrained it to obey commands in English, and in 1926 presented the animal to United States Senator Thomas D. Schall, who used it for a good many years. When Lux, the Minnesota senator's dog, died in 1933 he was eulogized by his disconsolate master in the Congressional Record of May 23.
Sinykin later incorporated an organization in Minnesota under the name of His Master's Eye Institute. He imported a trainer from Germany to begin a large-scale breeding and training program, but this was cut short when fire destroyed the kennels in 1935. A decade later, a new Master Eye Foundation was established, this time in Illinois, under the direction of Bishop Bernard J. Sheil. It used dogs trained under contract by Sinykin in Minnesota. The contract was eventually terminated and the Illinois organization changed its name to Pilot Dogs, with offices in Chicago but training facilities in Columbus, Ohio. One of its fund-raising methods was through an arrangement with a dog food company, which redeemed labels from cans of its products by contributing funds to Pilot Dogs.
Leaders in work for the blind were uneasy over this commercial tie-in, not because they begrudged funds to Pilot Dogs but because of the troubles they periodically experienced as the result of unfounded rumors that collections of various useless objects—empty match folders, tin foil, cigarette wrappers, cellophane strips from cigarette packages, tea bag labels—would "buy" guide dogs for blind people. Hoaxes of this type were reported as early as 1938 and continued to crop up intermittently thereafter. In 1971 the Foundation issued a public warning against the newest manifestation, this one involving the ring-top pulls of aluminum cans, and repeated the message, delivered every time such rumors got under way, that no blind person was denied a dog guide for lack of funds.
The arrangement between the dog food company and Pilot Dogs continued throughout the years; its 1969 financial statement showed income of about $50,000, or one-third of its annual budget, derived from the tie-in.
In the eastern United States two dog guide schools were in operation in 1972 in addition to Seeing Eye. The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (also known as Second Sight), with headquarters in Forest Hills, New York, and a training center in Smithtown, Long Island, was organized in 1946 by a blind attorney who grew impatient over the long waiting list at Seeing Eye that resulted from the preference then being extended to blinded veterans.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind, also headquartered in New York City but with its training center in Yorktown Heights in Westchester, was organized in 1954, utilizing the services of a former Seeing Eye employee to organize its training program.
The two New York schools survived the uncomfortable limelight in which they were placed during the mid-Fifties in the course of widely publicized state legislative investigations of fund-raising practices. These investigations resulted in the state's Charities Registration Act, adopted in 1954 and amended two years later, a measure designed to prevent fraudulent or inordinately costly drives conducted in the name of philanthropy.
Despite their diverse origins, all nine dog guide schools pursue essentially similar patterns in preparing dogs and blind persons to work together as mobility partners. Animals of suitable breed—no longer exclusively German shepherds but Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Collies, and other canines of appropriate size and characteristics—are either bred in the school's own kennels or secured through purchase or donation. Several of the schools place their puppies in foster homes (youngsters enrolled in the 4-H Clubs of America are a valuable source of such cooperation for some of the schools), where they grow accustomed to family atmospheres until they reach the age, about a year-and-a-half, when they can begin to be trained as guides for blind people.
The dogs' active training period lasts three or four months, during which they are taught to obey basic directional commands, to halt at sidewalk curbs, to circumvent obstructions, to function in heavy pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to ignore lamp posts and the presence of other animals while in harness, to retain self-control even when startled by sudden loud noises. After learning obedience to commands, they are then taught what is described as "intelligent disobedience"—e.g., to refuse a "forward" command when obeying it might risk the safety of the person being guided.
(It is only in such instances that the animal does anything other than follow a specific command. Contrary to public impression, it is the master and not the dog guide who decides when to cross a street or in what direction to proceed. The dog does not distinguish between red and green traffic lights—dogs are color blind—nor does it respond to such commands as "take me to the bus stop.")
Training the dog is only half the job. The more critical half is training the blind person in how to use the animal, and teaching the two together to work as a team. This takes about four weeks' residence at the school, during which the dog's fidelity has to be transferred from the trainer to the new master, while the master has to learn to trust his canine guide and to develop confidence in his own ability to travel safely with the animal's help.
The most arduous and extensive training is the lot of the instructor who works with both dog and master. An outline of the apprentice training program for dog guide schools, which was included in standards published in 1966, called for a three-year program during which the apprentice, under supervision, would gradually learn to take responsibility for preparing a string of dogs for assignment to a class of six or eight blind students, for matching students and dogs, and for instructing the students in how to work with their dogs. Part of the apprentice's training was to be performed under blindfold, so that he could more fully understand the blind person's problems in effecting a man-dog partnership.
Although the dog guide movement in and of itself has never served more than a small fraction of the blind population, it has nevertheless exerted a major influence by demonstrating the necessity for a formalized course of mobility training. This concept proved equally applicable to the cane travel technique initiated by Richard Hoover at Valley Forge and brought to advanced stages of development by Russell Williams and his staff at Hines.
The use by blind people of some form of cane or staff to guide their steps goes back to antiquity. A stout tree branch was probably the first such object; later, as man mastered the use of cutting tools, straighter and smoother staffs came into use. The traditional method was for the blind man to tap his way along, warning others out of his path and simultaneously setting up echoes which he used, consciously or unconsciously, as clues to the environment. The clatter of horse hooves or iron wheels was usually loud enough to prevent highway accidents. When, however, rubber-tired automotive vehicles took over the roads at ever higher speeds, the unaccompanied blind pedestrian faced increasing peril.
In 1930 the Lions Club of Peoria, Illinois, decided it could help out in this situation by having motorists share the responsibility for safe crossing by blind persons. At its urging the city of Peoria passed an ordinance making it mandatory for motorists to yield the right of way to persons who identified themselves as blind by carrying red-tipped white canes. The following year a statewide White Cane Law was enacted, and the Lions proceeded to adopt the white cane movement as a national program, successfully pressing for passage of similar laws in all states. Some of these laws called for the cane to be held aloft or extended horizontally so as to be more readily observable.
Added impetus was given to the white cane movement when Senator Schall, who had not yet acquired a second dog guide, was run over and killed by a car while crossing a Washington street just before Christmas of 1935. In the wake of this accident the Foundation issued a bulletin urging all agencies for the blind to support the white cane movement and offering to supply such canes at wholesale prices. The fact that white canes represented conspicuous labels of blindness was now considered of secondary importance.
Twenty-five years later, in 1961, the Foundation issued a policy statement that more or less reversed its earlier position. Experience with the white cane had shown, the statement noted, that "the great majority of motorists are unaware of [its] meaning" and "there is no confidence that the percentage of drivers who recognize the white cane as a 'stop signal' will ever be very great." Moreover, white cane laws were not being widely enforced, and those state laws that called for holding the cane aloft or extended at arm's length from the body not only made the cane dangerous to other pedestrians but precluded its more practical use as an obstacle detector. The white cane laws, the statement averred, simply deepened the public's belief that blind persons "are unskilled in their ability to transport themselves, and, as a consequence, are socially or vocationally unacceptable." The essential value of any cane was in its skilled use as a mobility tool; its color was unimportant.
In this final point lay the crux of the matter, for by 1961 formal criteria for mobility instructors had been evolved, two graduate educational programs in orientation and mobility had been initiated, and a specialized discipline was on the verge of becoming a profession.
Few periods in history were as fertile as the Fifties in providing blind people with opportunities and incentives for economic and social progress. The decade was dotted with landmarks of liberation: expanded educational, vocational and cultural programs, a greater choice and availability of jobs, improved financial security, new resources for personal adjustment and growth through rehabilitation centers. To take advantage of these widened horizons, however, blind people had to forgo the comfort of sheltered lives and move out into the bustling traffic of their sighted peers. That it could be done, to a degree theretofore considered unattainable, had been demonstrated by the example of the World War II veterans and the cane travel techniques that had freed so many of them from immobility.
One of the first efforts to share the lessons learned at Valley Forge with agencies serving the civilian blind was a training manual prepared for the "orientors" at that Army hospital. As a service to its readers, the Outlook published the document in full in its issue of December 1947. It was a well-intentioned gesture, but it backfired. All over the country impulsive workers for the blind who read and clipped the article concluded that they now had all they needed to know to go and do likewise. The more thoughtful among them recognized that there was more to it. Some, taking advantage of the fact that Hoover, then living at the Maryland School for the Blind while studying medicine, was giving summer courses in the long cane technique, sent staff members to learn his methods.
Other agencies, aware that the long cane method was being refined at the Hines VA center, applied for permission to send staff members there for a week or two of observation. A number of such requests were granted, but those agency heads who hoped that a brief visit would enable the observer to return fully equipped to introduce a mobility program were disappointed. Instead, a former member of the Hines staff was to recall, the visits "served chiefly to whet the appetites for a much more thorough indoctrination and training."
One effort to satisfy these whetted appetites was the VA's production in 1952 of a training film, The Long Cane. Shot on location at Hines, the thirty-minute film used no professional actors; the man who took the role of the blind trainee was Lloyd Greenwood, on leave of absence from his post as executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association. Greenwood convincingly reenacted the mobility training experiences he had himself undergone some years earlier. The film also had Russell Williams, playing himself, as well as members of his staff and veterans who were actually undergoing training at Hines during the shooting.
In releasing The Long Cane for borrowing by civilian agencies, Dr. A.B.C. Knudson, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation for the VA, acknowledged that differences between civilian clients and the men at the VA center would make it difficult to use the Hines techniques without adaptation. He used the occasion to make an oblique but unmistakable point: "The war blind at the outset know nothing about being blind and as a rule know that they know nothing. They are willing to learn from seeing instructors because their self-esteem has not yet become involved with a concept of themselves as authorities on the subject."
Dr. Knudson was alluding to the resistance, both silent and vocal, that traditionalists in work for the blind were showing toward the idea of sighted mobility instructors. For decades, whatever travel techniques blind people learned had come to them through home teachers, most of whom were themselves blind. What they taught was "the way I get around," a hit-or-miss proposition at best, satisfactory enough for indoor orientation and mobility but hardly adequate for safe unescorted movement on unfamiliar city streets.
It was to plan ways of outflanking this resistance, and to prevent watering down of the laboriously evolved mobility discipline, that Father Thomas J. Carroll and Kathern Gruber met in Chicago in November 1952 with Russell Williams and several members of his staff. What they worked out, in an off-the-record conference, was a set of guidelines outlining the overall responsibilities of a "mobility technician" whose function was "to be both teacher and coach in instilling into the blinded person knowledge of a science and skill in an art on which his personal safety and perhaps his life may depend."
The work of the mobility technician, a memorandum summarizing the group's conclusions declared, extended beyond "mere instruction in the proper use of a cane or of a guide dog." These were simply tools. The technician's work was
The memorandum was unsigned, but its language would suggest Father Carroll's authorship. Whether or not he wrote this particular document, it was unquestionably he who took the next step to translate its ideas into action. Not quite a year later, he assembled, in his own home in Gloucester, Mass., a group of 24 persons to participate in a workshop sponsored by his agency, the Catholic Guild for the Blind. The occasion for the conference, the invitees were informed, was "the increasing recognition of the danger involved in allowing untrained persons to set themselves up as [mobility] experts." Those asked to participate included not just practitioners in work with blind adults and children but also specialists in physical education, physical medicine, general rehabilitation, ophthalmology, clinical psychology and psychological research.
No report of the workshop's findings ever appeared in print. It was later said that the field of work for the blind was not yet ready to accept the advanced principles and standards the participants were eager to promulgate. Quite possibly this was the final spur which led Father Carroll, the following year, to launch St. Paul's Rehabilitation Center, where he uncompromisingly put into practice the concepts he believed should be universally adopted.
By 1958 the vanguard thinkers of the Gloucester conference had succeeded in finding a powerful ally in the person of Louis H. Rives, then chief of the Division of Services to the Blind of the federal Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Training of mobility instructors was adopted as an OVR program priority that year; to get things started, the American Foundation for the Blind was given a grant to convene a national conference of specialists. At this conclave, held in June 1959, much of what had been said years earlier in Chicago and Gloucester was reiterated, and the first step toward professionalization was taken in the form of a recommendation that at least one year of graduate study be required for mobility instructors.
The conferees also came out firmly, although not unanimously, with what they knew would be an inflammatory stand: that "the teaching of mobility was a task of a sighted, rather than a blind, individual." The concept of the blind mobility instructor was "bankrupt," the group insisted, if only because that instructor was just as incapable of seeing danger as his trainee, and was therefore unable to protect the latter in a hazardous situation.
As drawn up by the group, minimum standards for mobility instructors included good vision, hearing, and physical condition, an academic bachelor's degree, and those personal characteristics that could lend themselves to the exacting process of building trusted relationships with trainees. A tentative curriculum for graduate study and supervised practice was also proposed. The areas to be covered went well beyond technical training procedures, embracing psychology, dynamics of human behavior, anatomy, and physiology, with particular emphasis on the sensorium.
Coming as it did during one of the most dynamic phases of OVR's thrust toward expanded research and training in the field of vocational rehabilitation, the committee's report won prompt acceptance and action on the part of the federal agency. By June 1960 the nation's first graduate program in mobility was inaugurated at Boston College for 8 students (the number was doubled in ensuing years), and a year later the second opened at Western Michigan University for 12. Money was not a problem; the students were eligible for OVR traineeship grants. What did constitute an obstacle was finding qualified faculty, but Father Carroll and Russell Williams, the most ardent advocates of professionalization, met the challenge by volunteering the use of their own agencies for clinical practice, and releasing members of their staffs to teach and supervise.
To validate the usefulness of professional mobility instruction as soon as graduates of these first courses became available, OVR supported a cluster of demonstration projects in voluntary and state agencies, residential and day schools. Between 1963 and 1971, it funded 30 such demonstrations.
Apart from their tangible results, these grants helped defuse some of the negative reactions that followed the initiation of professional standards for mobility instruction. But protests there were, as has ever been the case when a new group struggles to wedge its way into established structures. Spokesmen for long-accepted professions questioned whether there was a sufficient body of knowledge or experience in mobility instruction to warrant awarding it professional status. Practitioners in related disciplines that were simultaneously seeking professional recognition feared their chances for acceptance might suffer from competition. The most vehement outbursts came from blind workers—home teachers and others—who felt themselves threatened.
A good-natured effort to mollify the doubters and dissenters was made at the 1960 AAWB convention when the leading proponents of the new discipline presented a humorous recorded skit contrasting the safety of trained long-cane users with the physical risks taken by those who scorned its use. The skit was followed by an informal demonstration in which four men experienced in teaching cane mobility techniques gave a "three-minute wonder course" to blind members of the audience who volunteered.
The standards for orientation and mobility services published in the 1966 COMSTAC report endorsed the concept of professionally qualified sighted teachers. As a practical matter, the COMSTAC standards also proposed that a certifying body be established that would "give formal recognition to those whose years of experience may be considered a substitute for graduate academic training."
This proposal was implemented in 1969 when AAWB appointed an Orientation and Mobility Certification Committee which, until the end of 1971, honored a "grandfather clause" in certifying applicants qualified by experience. By January of 1972 the committee had granted permanent certificates to 137 applicants and provisional certification to 138. By this time, too, four additional graduate programs had been established: at San Francisco State College, California State College at Los Angeles, University of Northern Colorado, and University of Pittsburgh, and a pilot effort on the undergraduate level had been set up at Florida State University. All told, however, no more than fifty to sixty mobility instructors per year were emerging from these educational institutions; demand far exceeded supply.
At the end of 1972 the question of what constituted qualification for teaching orientation and mobility remained hotly controversial. Two large local service agencies, the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind and the Cleveland Society for the Blind, which had undertaken a combination of in-service training and university courses, were under attack by members of the certified mobility group for diluting standards. The attackers were being attacked, in turn, for their "crusading attitude" by means of which the long cane had "become a fetish and the associated technology a ritual."
The mobility discipline itself had not yet fully coalesced. One of its minor problems was what to call itself. "Orientor," the term used at Valley Forge and Hines, was rejected; "mobility technician" did not sound sufficiently professional; "orientation and mobility specialist" was awkwardly lengthy. Back in 1953, at Gloucester, the term "peripatology" had been coined [from the Greek peri, meaning around or surrounding; patein, to walk; ology, the science of ], but it was not widely used.
The major schism involved graduate training. Both the extent of the schism and a possible approach to straddling it were recognized in two policy statements issued by the Foundation in late 1969 and early 1970. The first of these, "The Science of Peripatology," declared:
The second statement, "Delivery of Orientation and Mobility Services for Blind Persons," said:
It seemed reasonable to suppose that this multi-level approach was the path that would have to be followed in years to come. In an era of expanding demand for all types of human services, it was a path already well trodden by other disciplines—social work, law, nursing and other health professions, even medicine itself—all of which had accepted the reality of trained aides working as junior partners to professionals.
The modern movement for scientific mobility techniques began with the war-blinded, who were adults. Instruction of children in the newer methods of independent travel arose somewhat later in the game.
Although orientation and mobility are customarily linked in a single phrase, they are separate functions. Orientation is the process by which a person locates his position in space and his relationship to surrounding objects. Mobility deals with actual locomotion from one position in space to another. Obviously, orientation is a prerequisite for mobility, but it is also an essential in itself, as when a blind person seated in a chair reaches out for the glass he knows is on a nearby table, or determines, by using his other senses, whether people have entered or left a room.
Blind students were traditionally taught basic elements of orientation in the residential schools and, to some extent, in day school programs for the visually handicapped. They also discovered a good deal about their surroundings in the same trial-and-error way as all growing children.
What they did not learn, until recent times, was how to navigate securely through unfamiliar environments. Richard Hoover, who had been a pre-war instructor at the Maryland School for the Blind, was concerned over the difficulties that confronted the older students, particularly those attending a community high school, in taking advantage of opportunities for growth-producing experiences "downtown." When, at war's end, he returned to live at the school for a time, he secured the consent of its superintendent, Francis M. Andrews, to introduce a few of the older pupils to the long-cane technique developed at Valley Forge.
The lessons were a great success. Superintendent Andrews warned against efforts to teach travel without adequate preparation, but he was genuinely enthusiastic. "Within reasonable limits, travel is safe; it is successful; it is an added means of independence for our blind."
Still, the idea was slow to catch on; the main drawback was that there was no school to teach the teachers who could, in turn, instruct the children. In 1953 the Foundation's specialist in education, Georgie Lee Abel, could list only nine schools for blind children in which any sort of travel instruction was given, and much of this was substandard. "There seems to be a great feeling of need," she noted, "but so little actual know-how."
The feeling of need gradually gave way to action. At summer workshops for teachers of blind children, representatives of cane travel programs and dog guide schools were invited to acquaint teachers with the potentials for independent movement. These workshops were not intended to make their participants instant experts on mobility, but to increase their awareness of the subject and supply them with reliable information that would enable young people and their parents to exercise intelligent choices at the proper time. One of the things made clear, for example, was that dog guides were not suitable for young children, who could not be expected to have either the physical strength or the maturity of judgment needed to work with dogs. A statement subsequently issued by a dozen authorities on the subject recommended that training with a dog guide not begin before the middle teens at earliest. It acknowledged the value of dogs as pets, but pointed out that dog guides were not pets but working animals. With rare exceptions, most reliable dog guide schools do not accept applicants under sixteen.
Once cane mobility instruction reached the master's degree level, a considerable demand arose among both residential and day schools for graduates of these programs. The United States Office of Education stepped in to assist in this process by granting funds for the formulation of educational principles in teaching orientation and mobility skills to children. The usual practice came to be instruction of younger children in various phases of orientation, with cane training beginning at the junior high school level. An important function of a certified orientation and mobility specialist working in a school was to determine when each individual blind child was physically, mentally and emotionally ready for cane travel.
The cane, the dog, the friendly elbow of a human guide—were these the only answers to greater freedom of movement for blind people? Could modern technology offer no more efficient solutions? Millions of dollars and uncounted man-hours have been invested in exploring the second question with relatively few usable results. At various times since World War II, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Veterans Administration, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and other government bureaus have all sponsored and financed research efforts to find effective substitutes for the information provided by the human eye. Private philanthropy, which ventured early money and effort in exploratory work, soon found its financial and manpower resources outstripped by the demands of technological research and invention. Consequently it reshaped its role to serve as the bridge from laboratory to consumer, as liaison agent among separate ventures, as stimulator of new efforts, as consultant and evaluator of experimental approaches and as the medium for field testing of laboratory products.
Many of these last functions were assumed by the Foundation once it decided, in 1959, to discontinue its independent efforts at invention of guidance devices and to concentrate its research role on enabling tasks. In 1961, 1962, 1964, and 1971 it took the leadership in convening national and international conferences on technology at which high-level experts in physics, engineering, electronics, automation, biophysics and optics exchanged ideas with equally high-level specialists in psychology, sociology, physical medicine, rehabilitation, and social services. At each conference, progress was assessed, new technological approaches disclosed and discussed, and ever-closer lines drawn between theory and application. The latter came to assume greater and greater weight in the thinking of those engaged in the hard sciences. As a psychologist associated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it at one of the international conclaves:
A blind student once put the whole issue even more succinctly when he said, "I walk with my head as well as with my feet."
* She also extended the same invitation to another blind man, Dr. Howard Buchanan of Colorado Springs, Colo., a physician who had lost his sight three years earlier while serving as a medical missionary in Sudan. He was unable to make the trip but did become one of the first two people to receive a Seeing Eye dog once the program got under way in the United States.
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