Panel 3: "Historical reflections on knowledge (production) of disability and race"

Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)

‘If he is a deserving Negro’: The intersection of disability, race, and citizenship in the interwar United States’ guide dog movement

Eric A. Deutsch

PhD Candidate in History, University at Buffalo (SUNY)

In 1928, Morris Frank, a blind college student from Tennessee, traveled from the United States to Switzerland where he was to be trained with a guide dog “Buddy”. Frank returned after two months later committed to launching the guide dog movement in his home-nation. For the next decade, Frank and Buddy endeavored on a national tour promoting and marketing guide dogs. Their message: guide dogs are rehabilitative tool through which blind people, no longer reliant on human aid to enter public spaces, could, like Frank, (re-)claim their freedom and independence.


In 1929, Frank incorporated the most influential and successful guide dog training institution through the 1930s: The Seeing Eye. In its marketing, The Seeing Eye asserted that only 10% of the nation’s estimated 100,000 – 200,000 blind residents would be considered eligible for the rehabilitative tool. Such limitations reflected The Seeing Eye’s eligibility requirements for its services including the blind person being 18 and 50 years of age—working years—, and thereby using the dog for the purposes for which it was intended, as well as the wholly discretionary disqualifying factor for The Seeing Eye: not being judged as a blind American “content to be on ‘charity’ or relief for life [,who] haven’t the ambition.” The latter requirement accounted for the presumed motivation that a blind applicant intended to use the guide dog as a tool with which he would become a member of society worthy of his (over 75% of The Seeing Eye’s graduates between 1929 and 1944 were men) key to reentry. The Seeing Eye, then, served as arbiter of blind Americans ‘deserving’ of social rehabilitation.


Guide dogs represented a living rehabilitative tool through which notions of disability and rehabilitation were mediated in the United States during through the 1930s. From 1927 through 1941, The Seeing Eye championed guide dogs as tools through which blind users’ social disability could be rehabilitated. The Seeing Eye dog (re-)endowed its blind user with the freedom and independence necessary to operate within society’s established bounds of civic engagement. The metrics by which one’s rehabilitation with a guide dog was measured—chiefly, regarding employment/employability—served to reinforce a definition of rehabilitation for blind people as enabling them to enter society on society’s terms. Guide dogs were portrayed as tools that promised to circumvent for their blind user the structural barriers to blind people’s physical engagement with society. The blind user’s entry into public space, then, was independent of the public accommodating a blind person’s impairment.


The Seeing Eye marketed itself to the American public as offering a service to “deserving” blind people who sought to fulfill their civic duty by enabling themselves to productively contribute to society. Considerations of deservingness were present in The Seeing Eye’s priorities for accepting prospective trainees, with manifestations that emphasize the relationship between disability, rehabilitation, and race.


The Seeing Eye prioritized granting its services to those who were not born blind, but were, in its words, “newly blind,” reflecting its “theory that getting a dog as soon as possible prevents the formation of bad habits […] which will have to be corrected in training.” Studies of the demographics of “newly blind” Americans in 1920 found that 43.2% of native-born male White Americans who lost their vision between 20 and 64, and 58.3% of male Black Americans who became blind did so during that ‘working age’ range that The Seeing Eye so prioritized. The ratio of blind White Americans to blind “Negro” Americans at that time was about 85:15. A large-scale study by the U.S. Public Health Service undertaken in 1935 and 1936 confirmed that blindness was nearly twice as prominent for Black Americans as White Americans.


Of the close to 900 graduates from The Seeing Eye over its first fifteen years, then, 126 might be expected to be Black. It became apparent while analyzing sources regarding the development of the guide dog movement in the United States in relation to the construction of disability, rehabilitation, and citizenship, that the number of Black blind persons trained at The Seeing Eye was two.


This finding seemingly contradicts the 1930 assertion by Morris Frank that The Seeing Eye would, as a “non-profit organization,” admit Black applicants. The premiere U.S. guide dog institution apparently admitting two Black blind people despite having an informal policy to be inclusionary ostensibly reflects a facially neutral policy nevertheless disparately impacting Black blind Americans.


The 1930 correspondence to which Morris Frank responded that The Seeing Eye would accept blind Black applicants was from another of the institution’s executives, who noted, “There is a local blind man, a Negro, and someone wants to collect for getting him a dog. If he is a deserving Negro, what is to be done about it?” Frank responded that, as “an organization to furnish dogs for the deserving blind and I do not think we can discriminate and still call ourselves a non-profit organization.” Whether Frank’s response ought to be interpreted as instituting a formal policy asserting that The Seeing Eye would extend its services to Black Americans on equal terms as its training was marketed to White Americans may be informed by The Seeing Eye’s commitment to predominantly marketing itself to outlets with overwhelmingly White and middle-class audiences.


Further, The Seeing Eye marketed itself to a particularly northeast American audience, the result of which may have manifested in the fact that, as of 1944, 83 of 841 (9.8%) of blind Americans who had trained with a guide dog at The Seeing Eye were from southern states, where Black Americans, with a higher incidence of blindness, did not have access to the schools or clubs within which The Seeing Eye marketed itself through the 1930s.


The Seeing Eye and other actors in the guide dog movement championed ‘citizenship’ within the contours of that concept’s American construction, wherein expectations of civic engagement/citizenship depended on a blind person’s inclusion within social categories, including race. Considerations of data regarding The Seeing Eye’s prioritizations regarding marketing its services and qualifying blind people it prioritized for rehabilitation speaks to the intersectionality and relationship between disability, rehabilitation, and race.