THE COMMENCEMENT CROWD cheered as Cheryl Fischer, holding a white cane in front of her, crossed the stage to pick up her diploma. It was a moment to savor: having lost her eyesight to a rare disease at 18, she had managed to complete a degree in chemistry with honors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland—a challenge even for someone with perfect vision. But on that day in 1987, Fischer didn’t care about the honors. She just wanted her classmates to see “that I was normal, that I was one of them.” Their wild hurrahs, she says, choking back tears at what is still a painful memory, meant the opposite. “They were clapping for me because I was blind.”
Fischer, now 32, is still battling for acceptance rather than accolades. After college she decided to follow up on her ambition to become a medical doctor—albeit a psychiatrist, where lack of eyesight would be less of a hindrance. But when her medical-school applications, including one to Case Western, were rejected, she struck back, eventually suing her alma mater for admission. Her case—after seven years of rulings, appeals and reversals—is now being considered by the Ohio Supreme Court. It is likely to ignite a debate about what
it means to be a doctor and, for that matter, what it means to be blind. Not that Fischer sees her crusade as involving an issue of public policy. “All I ever wanted was the chance to succeed, or fail, on my own terms,” she says, “without someone prejudging my chances.”
Her ordeal has been unfolding ever since an evening in 1982 when, on a date at a Cleveland restaurant a few months before her high school graduation, Fischer noticed something wrong. As she glanced at the menu, a splotch of blood—”like a smudge on a window”—suddenly appeared in one eye. “I’d blink,” she says, “and it didn’t go away.” A doctor diagnosed Eal’s Disease, in which the eyes fill with abnormal blood vessels. Opaque streaks soon appeared in both eyes, and by the fall, Fischer was legally blind.
While undergoing surgeries to fight the disease, she postponed enrolling at Case Western for a year. Her family—mother Mary Ann, 54, a retired manager at a power-plant component factory; her father, Joseph, 56, a chemist; and her two sisters, Renee, 27, and Andrea, 25—remember it as a difficult period. “She couldn’t do anything,” says Andrea. Renee recalls having to wait on her sister, down to reciting the contents of the refrigerator. Cheryl hated it. “I felt stifled,” she says. After a year, with her eyesight worsening, she decided to head to college anyway.
At Case Western she reinvented the way she studied. She listened more carefully to lectures, recorded them, then laboriously transcribed the tapes into Braille, which she had learned at the Cleveland Sight Center. “It was very time-consuming,” Fischer says, “but I got good, clear notes.” By using the school’s free tutors to help study for exams and by paying classmates $5 an hour—money the state reimbursed—to read textbooks to her, she eventually adjusted. As did her professors. Fearing broken test tubes and other potential disasters, chemistry professor Claire Tessier remembers feeling “sheer panic” when Fischer signed up for her class. But Fischer worked efficiently with a student assistant—”He was her eyes and hands,” says Tessier. At the end of the course, as in many others, she got an A.
Since she had a 3.34 grade point average, Case Western seemed interested in her as a medical student when she first applied in 1987, even though she was by then totally blind. She had “outstanding moxie,” an associate dean, Albert Kirby, told the school’s admissions committee, and recommended her as a “very good candidate, regardless of handicap.” To her surprise, Kirby called Fischer to tell her she had been rejected anyway (as she was at four other schools). When she asked him if the school based the decision “on their own prejudices,” Kirby, she says, told her “yes.” Though Kirby agreed that the conversation took place, he did not recall the use of the word “prejudice.”
When she reapplied the next year, Case Western sent two doctors from its admissions committee to interview her. This time, both came away with serious doubts. Dr. Mildred Lam says Fischer told her “she’d have someone read to her” when it came to reading X-rays, cardiograms or even a patient’s charts—a scenario Lam found “oversimplified.” The second interviewer, Dr. Richard Fratianne, had another con cern. When he asked why she wanted to be a doctor, Fischer said nothing about service to humanity, something he likes to hear from all applicants. Instead, “I heard a reflection of wanting to prove something,” he says. “She was so wrapped up in trying to overcome her handicap.”
Rejected again, Fischer complained to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. “My whole goal,” she says, “was to convince someone that I’m a capable person.” The commission found Case Western had violated her rights by rejecting her for blindness. It was, says one of her lawyers, Jeffrey Sutton of the state attorney general’s office, “a knee-jerk reaction based on stereotypes.”
The issue is not whether blind people can ever be subjected to restrictions—they are not, of course, allowed to drive or fly—but whether the restrictions are just. The commission contends that by rejecting Fischer, a qualified applicant, Case Western violated Ohio state laws preventing schools from rejecting students “on account of any handicap.” Case Western argued that it would have to alter its curriculum too much to accommodate Fischer, and as a result her medical training would be inadequate.
Yet Fischer does have one ace in the hole—a precedent. In 1972, David Hartman, who had lost his sight at age 8 to glaucoma, enrolled—without a court fight—at Philadelphia’s Temple University. In his autobiography, White Coat, White Cane, Hartman detailed the changes required to accommodate him, including having professors leave questions related to interpreting X-rays off his exams. But the bulk of his course work was no different from other students’. “I did not perceive that I was an overwhelming burden to the medical school,” he says.
Now 47 and a practicing psychiatrist in Salem, Va., Hartman testified on Fischer’s behalf before the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in her favor, as did a state trial court. (A state appeals court later overturned the ruling.) Hartman says there are certain things he cannot do—such as eye and ear exams—but argues that they are mostly irrelevant to his practice. At times, with disabled patients, he even sees his blindness as a plus. It gives him, he says, “a sense of what their struggle is all about.”
Although anxious for the Ohio high court ruling expected this summer, Fischer is no longer struggling for a place in the world. At home in her one-bedroom apartment in a building for disabled and elderly residents in Cleveland, she bakes bread and makes apple pie—”the kind that you’d have to pay $15 to get,” says a neighbor, Martin De Fabio, 69, whom Fischer taught to read again after he suffered a stroke last year. She works part-time for a research firm to evaluate rehab programs for the disabled and volunteers regularly—including as a Braille tutor to a 6-year-old boy. She has no steady boyfriend but loves to go dancing and on weekend outings with friends.
Fischer knows she could skirt medical school by becoming a psychologist. Yet even after earning a master’s degree in research psychology (with a 3.8 average) from Cleveland State University in 1993, she is intent on becoming a psychiatrist. It is the scientific study of the body’s interaction with the mind—training she can only get in a medical school—that interests her. Without it, she says, “you don’t have the whole picture.”
By now, she concedes, she also has another reason for continuing her battle—a matter of dignity. “I know what I am capable of and what the outcome should be,” she says of her case. And win or lose, “I’ll know I did everything I could to help others to understand.”
BARBARA SANDLER in Cleveland and MARGERY SELLINCER in Washington