Disability History Lecture 1

Dr. Monika Baar – University of Groningen – December 4th 2012 – From dogs to robots: Some insights into the history of technological devices for persons with visual impairments.

In addition to innovations in the education of blind people such as the invention of Braille writing, the improvement of mobility devices meant another way to contribute to their integration to sighted society. The white stick, the use of which became common in the interwar period, had the role to signal a blind person’s presence, so it was not (necessarily) used as a mobility device. The first breakthrough came during the First World War, when the necessity to rehabilitate a large number of soldiers who had lost their sight during the First World War led the institutionalization of guide dog training. Positive experiences with the use of German shepherds during the war as messenger-, rescue- and sanitary dogs provided the background for this experiment. Moreover, soldiers on the front, in the absence of their family members, developed a special bond with the animals around them which also had a therapeutic effect. But if the implementation of guide dog training was to be successful, new knowledge was necessary both on the mental and physical abilities of blind persons and of dogs. The first guide dog training establishment was opened in Germany in 1916 and subsequently the idea was introduced in several countries in the world. But it always had to be adapted to the specific local conditions, as societal and cultural attitudes to blind people and to dogs have differed widely in various countries, as did concepts of philanthropy and citizenship. Moreover, because in many countries guide dogs were initially available only for war veterans; civilian blind people often had to fight for getting access to what previously had been considered a privilege only offered to the ‘heroic blind’. On the one hand, the success of the guide dog movement has been overwhelming as guide dog owners value not just the technical help but also the therapeutic effect. On the other hand, however, guide dogs can solve the mobility issues only of a very small segment of the blind population. This is why in the second half of the twentieth century, with the advancement of technology, new devices were developed. One of these, the long cane, is a versatile and inexpensive option, although it has many limitations. Moreover, Japanese researchers have been on the forefront of developing the guide dog robot, the latest version of which is able to recognize the height of the staircase and the width of the individual steps. The potential for future technological innovations is great, although naturally, they will not be able to reproduce the therapeutic effect of canine companionship.

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