Kitty Fischer: Advocate and Friend
By Elizabeth Spiers
Kitty Fischer has always had a heart for students who are deaf-blind.
Ms. Fischer has Usher Syndrome Type 1. Now retired, she worked at the library of the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) in Washington, DC, from 1971 to 1999. During the years, she became a role model for deaf students with Usher Syndrome and other vision problems who attended MSSD.
Ms. Fischer worked very closely with Wanda Hicks, a counselor at MSSD (since retired and now deceased). Ms. Hicks was responsible for making sure that the students at MSSD got the supports they needed. She involved Ms. Fischer very heavily in her work.
“Wanda and I spent a lot of time educating the teachers about the students who had Usher Syndrome,” Ms. Fischer said. “For example, she and I encouraged all the Usher students to sit in the middle of the classroom or in a group. They could see better that way. Sometimes the teachers didn’t always understand why the students needed to sit in the middle. We explained to them that the students sometimes missed things if they sat off to the side. The students too sometimes didn’t want to admit that they had Usher so they would sit on the side and tell us and the teacher that they could see just fine.”
“Wanda and I also made suggestions on how classes could be more accessible to the Usher students. One teacher loved to write in colored chalk. I told her that she needed to use white or yellow chalk as it provided better contrast for the students. It took some teachers a while to understand this. Some were very resistant to doing anything extra for the students. Others thanked me for letting me know.”
Ms. Hicks and Ms. Fischer educated both teachers and students. “Wanda gave workshops to the MSSD teachers and I assisted her. We taped some old glasses and put holes in them to simulate various visual impairments. Then we had people try them on so they could experience what it was like to have limited vision. The exercises really helped them understand better what deaf-blindness is like.”
Ms. Fischer soon took on other roles–that of counselor and role model. “I often would sit down and talk with the students–sometimes I would have lunch with them every day and just listen to them. One student was convinced that he would be fully blind by the time he was 20 or 30 years old. I told him that he would probably become blind much later in life if at all–as the outcome was never sure. And he could still be successful. I pointed out that I have Usher too and I was working and raising a family.”
Ms. Fischer continued, “Once, I worked with a girl with Usher whose father absolutely refused to accept that she had this syndrome. The doctor showed her the paper saying she had Usher Syndrome. However, the girl said, ‘No, I don’t have Usher because my father keeps telling me I don’t have it.’ The father was a doctor himself but he didn’t want to recognize that she had Usher. This was a very difficult situation for me.”
However, Ms. Fischer continued to educate both teachers and students. “The first year I taught there it was very difficult because the teachers and staff understood so little about Usher Syndrome. But Wanda and I kept trying to teach them. Through the years, things improved and the staff and teachers became more aware of students with vision problems.”
Ms. Fischer has traveled her own journey to acceptance of her Usher. She didn’t find out about it until she was 27 years old and already raising a family. “My vision was pretty good then. But after my son was born, I lost quite a bit of my peripheral vision. I went to the MSSD infirmary to have it checked out.” Shortly afterwards, Ms. Fischer went to the National Institute of Health to find out more about her vision loss. The doctor tested her and told her, “You have Usher Syndrome.”
“My first thought was that I would be fully deaf-blind,” Ms. Fischer said. “I was very upset. I cried and cried at first. But I realized I had to move on with my life and accept it.”
Ms. Fischer retired in 1999. At that time, she started to research her family history with the encouragement of her doctor, so she could learn about her Usher. “I found out that people on both my mother’s and father’s side had intermarried with each other for generations. They lived originally in France, but then moved to Nova Scotia and eventually to Louisiana. The Usher gene is most likely from a generation far, far back because I am the only deaf-blind person in my family right now.”
Editor’s Note: Ms. Fischer, along with Cathryn Carroll, has written a book about her life experiences, Orchid of the Bayou: a Deaf Woman Faces Blindness, which was published in 2001. It is available through Gallaudet University Press.