Disability and the Radial Republic


US Postage stamp honoring guide dogs, picturing Morris Frank and his pioneering American guide dog Buddy, a German Shepherd. Beneath them it says: “Seeing For Me”




I haven’t been posting on my blog lately. Sometimes the limbed life of physical difference is overwhelming and one feels a temptation to lie down in the long ditch of sadness. The largest psychiatric hospital in the United States is the Los Angeles County Jail. Veterans with disabilities  since 9/11 face extraordinary obstacles to employment. Rehabilitation services for all persons with disabilities are underfunded. 70% of the disabled remain unemployed in the US. Only one quarter of matriculating college students with disabilities actually graduates. Long standing charities like guide dog schools are experiencing a general decline in philanthropic donations—Baby Boomers and their children aren’t as generous as “The Greatest Generation” it seems. 

Meanwhile the toxic and shrill bloviating of politicians like Paul Ryan (who argue social programs are the root of America’s financial problems) helps to convince Americans that generosity and fairness are nearly unpatriotic—and would this were not so—for giving hard working and ambitious people with disabilities a shot at the American Dream ought to be deeply carved on the entablatures of our public buildings. 


What do I mean by a “radial republic”? Many things of course but principally a renewal of the social contract—our American contract which has grown stronger after every war and which has assured veterans with disabilities will be properly assisted, treated, educated, and welcomed. What do I mean by a radial republic? As we nurture disabled vets we assist all Americans with disabilities. Many people know I’m a guide dog user but I’m willing to bet that most of my readers don’t know that guide dogs (or “Seeing-Eye Dogs” as they’re sometimes called in the US in homage to North America’s first guide dog school which is named “The Seeing-Eye”) are the product of rehabilitation work in Germany at the end of WW I. 


Halfway through the First World War a German physician, Dr. Gerhard Stalling introduced a blind veteran to his pet dog. The two men were in a hospital garden when Stalling was suddenly called away. When he came back the soldier whose name is now lost, was laughing as the dog licked his hands. Stalling saw dogs might be trained to guide the blind. The war had produced an astonishing number of blind veterans. The total number of wounded from the first world war remains unknown but during the four and a half years of the conflict 230 soldiers died every hour. 11% of France’s entire population was killed. The ten month Battle of Verdun in 1916 caused over a million casualties. Chlorine and mustard gas killed nearly 90,000 troops and left one and a quarter million men permanently disabled. Blindness was a common result of gas warfare and one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings (“Gassed” 1919) depicts a ragged line of soldiers, their eyes bandaged, all the men walking in a line, each man’s hand on the shoulder of the man before him—with two sighted men in the lead. The sky is yellow above a field of corpses. 


Trench warfare included working dogs. Germany employed 30,000 dogs in the field and their work was divided according to need. Sentry dogs were used on patrols. They were taught to give warning when a stranger entered a secure area. Scout dogs were also used. Their job was more refined—they accompanied soldiers on reconnaissance and had to keep quiet. They could detect the enemy at a distance of a 1000 yards, “scenting” and pointing. 


Casualty or ‘Mercy’ dogs, also known as ‘Sanitatshunde’ were trained to find wounded or dying soldiers in the heat of battle. They carried medical supplies on their backs. The wounded could use the supplies if they were able, or they could count on the Mercy Dog to wait with them as they died.


Dogs also ran long distances across battle fields carrying messages, often during artillery attacks. The heroism of working dogs was well known on all sides. The Germans employed 30,000 dogs during the war. British and French forces had approximately 20,000 dogs in the field.    


The guide dog was a consequence of war. Because dogs had proved themselves capable of miraculous work under the worst battle conditions ever seen, it was clear to Stalling war dogs could be trained to help the blind navigate post-war streets which were suddenly filled with automobiles. With a small group of military dog handlers Stalling began training dogs for blind soldiers. Old photos show trainers and veterans working with German Shepherds, all the men wearing peaked hats and long wool coats. In addition to harnesses the dogs wore tunics bearing the Red Cross logo—the insignia of the battle field “mercy” dog.   


Stallings idea captivated the public’s imagination. An official guide dog school opened in in Oldenberg in 1916. The sight of veterans and dogs working in traffic was powerful and seemed natural. In popular imagination blind people had always been accompanied by dogs: a first century mural in Roman Herculaneum depicts a blind man with his dog.  A 19th century woodcut from the United States shows a blind man from Boston being lead by a dog and crossing the Commons. Such pairings were likely the products of serendipity—the blind and their dogs forged relationships by necessity. The history of blindness is filled with sorrow. Before reforms like Social Security and organized rehabilitation services were created in the 20th century, the blind often begged for food and shelter—some played musical instruments—many wandered searching for compassion. Dogs helped ease their loneliness and offered untrained navigational assistance.    


Sometimes I like to joke by saying the guide dog is the only good thing every invented by the German Army. This may be true. But what is true is that rehabilitation programs for disabled veterans impact the broader republic. Nowadays when an autist, or a deaf person is accompanied by a trained service dog we can and should give thanks to Dr. Stalling. And in turn we should be seeking with all our Republic’s strength to carry on the difficult work of lifelong optimism that disability rehabilitation and education calls for. 


I’m not fond of the term “wounded warrior” precisely because disability isn’t a wound—it may heal in some dimensions, but in others it will always be present. A commitment to people with disabilities in general and to veterans in particular means understanding the full arc of life. The radial republic means giving people with disabilities and equal shot at education, travel, vacation, family, housing, medicine, you name it. 


Making this happen benefits all.



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