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Pre-2008 Posts

Woman Gets Ph.D. — Can’t Speak, Use Hands or Feet

Kristin Rytter

“Kristin Rytter is believed to be the first University of Washington student with cerebral palsy to earn a doctoral degree. Although she cannot speak and cannot use her hands or feet, she has found ways to communicate, at times spending 10 hours a day researching and writing. She is already sharing her research with others outside the UW. (January 09, 2007)”

I thought this article from the front page of yesterday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer was inspiring, intriguing and timely.

From the article:

Her studies took nearly two decades, but UW officials are in awe of the accomplishment. She is believed to be the university’s first student with cerebral palsy to receive a Ph.D. Rytter, 41, cannot speak. She cannot use her hands or feet. The Seattle woman communicates using an “eye code” she and her father developed when she was young. She corresponds using a specially equipped computer. …Her eyes light up when she talks about her research, which has focused on disabled children who struggle to communicate. She works with parents to help them look for cues that indicate the child is trying to talk, even if the child can’t speak. Her goal is to help parents better understand how to interact with their disabled children.

One mother Rytter worked with didn’t think that her young son, who has Down syndrome, was communicating with her. But after watching the boy, Rytter observed that he was trying to talk by pointing.

Rytter’s own mother placed nametags on items around the house so she could learn words. To “talk,” Rytter moves her eyes to create letters and spell out words. Looking at a person’s shoulders, for instance, signifies the letter “s.”   She has personal staff members who understand the code and translate.  She can type on a laptop computer by moving her head against sensors, tapping out words in Morse code. That’s how she wrote her dissertation — all 200-plus pages of it.

…Kristin Rytter earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the UW in 1989. She pursued her doctorate over the next 17 years, defending her dissertation last quarter. She will be hooded at graduation this spring.

Despite her own communication limitations, Rytter devoted years to her work, at times spending 10 hours a day researching and writing.

For her dissertation defense, she prepared a PowerPoint show and had someone voice record her written presentation, which she played on a computer. Afterward, she presented written answers to questions her committee submitted ahead of time.

…Last month, Rytter gave a commencement speech to the department of speech and hearing science at the University of New Mexico, where her former UW adviser now leads the department. She encouraged graduates not to underestimate the abilities of people with disabilities.

Rytter spoke about “how important it is to listen to and learn from people with disabilities and their support systems. This is true no matter how language and/or cognitively delayed people are. They have their own personalities, preferences and capabilities to participate in life.”

Entire article by Christine Frey is here.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Woman Gets Ph.D. — Can’t Speak, Use Hands or Feet

  1. It’s fantastic! :-)

    Posted by profacero | January 10, 2007, 7:07 pm
  2. Absolutely it is. Not only Dr. Rytter’s achievement, but also that of her university.

    I know several similar stories involving persons with other disabilites, from people I’ve worked with and of course my deaf friend who achieved her masters in education in a hearing university, where they had no idea she was deaf. All the compensation was hers. There is now a Deaf masters in education at that university.

    My friend taught for 23 years in the hearing system. No one knew she was Deaf. Not her employers nor her students.

    Posted by Pony | January 10, 2007, 8:00 pm
  3. This is great to read from her, given the recent media events: Rytter spoke about “how important it is to listen to and learn from people with disabilities and their support systems. This is true no matter how language and/or cognitively delayed people are. They have their own personalities, preferences and capabilities to participate in life.”

    Posted by Blue | January 10, 2007, 9:21 pm
  4. “Pillow angel” my left butt cheek.

    Posted by Amy's Brain Today | January 10, 2007, 10:30 pm
  5. Right on time, huh, blue! Uncannily, almost, I loved that quote.

    Amy :D

    Heart

    Posted by womensspace | January 11, 2007, 12:14 am
  6. Yes, this is very inspiring :)

    I’m a member of Chickenshed theatre company in Southgate, London – they include everyone regardless of age, race, sex, ability and background. Its a piece of utopia in an increasingly exclusive world. The performances are of the most professional standard and proves that anyone can do ANYTHING.

    Website: http://www.chickenshed.org.uk/

    Anyway, as always, thanks for your wonderful writing!

    Posted by Liz | January 11, 2007, 4:02 pm
  7. Pony – that sounds hard for your friend. I’ve been lucky because when I was at University (graduated last summer) – the Sociology department was very supportive and York University already had disability support in place for people. I did encounter some problems with staff not knowing I was deaf and so on – but they were happy to adapt things for me. And I’m hoping to go back to do a Masters in Women’s Studies in September!

    But I’m aware that it’s really difficult because people are so ignorant when faced with deafness and disability. I frequently get times when people ask for directions, for example, and I ask them to repeat what they’ve asked explaining that I am deaf – and if a hearing person is with me, they will immediately ask them instead.

    And there is alot of institutional discrimination within universities, jobs and government. But examples like Kristin Rytter really inspire me to keep going and try to change the minds of people I meet and come into contact with.

    Posted by Liz | January 11, 2007, 4:10 pm
  8. Oops – meant to say that sounds GREAT for your friend, not difficult!! :)

    Posted by Liz | January 11, 2007, 4:11 pm
  9. One mother Rytter worked with didn’t think that her young son, who has Down syndrome, was communicating with her. But after watching the boy, Rytter observed that he was trying to talk by pointing.

    This is why I never believe the “mental age of blah blah blah” stuff, about anyone with CP or any other communication-related disabilities.

    Honestly, they don’t have a fucking clue.

    Posted by MrSoul | January 11, 2007, 5:01 pm
  10. Amazing. Just awe inspiring.

    Posted by pippa71 | January 11, 2007, 5:17 pm
  11. It was great, and hard. Perhaps one day you will meet her. It’s possible!

    Posted by Pony | January 11, 2007, 5:39 pm

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