The Story of Ingrid Tischer: ”Federal Law decided I had a right to go to public school only after I turned 10 years old”
By Tiffany Yu
I met Ingrid Tischer in 2016 during a trip to San Francisco. In 2018, we reconnected when Ingrid joined the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter as a trustee. She is the Director of Development at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF).
Life in the Bay Area
Ingrid moved to the Bay Area 28 years ago, first settling in San Francisco and then moving to Berkeley in 2011, when she started her role at DREDF and subsequently got married. She had moved from DC because her disability was progressing and the winter weather in DC drove her to find another place to live with more temperate weather. Ingrid has a form of muscular dystrophy (MD), a congenital, degenerative neuromuscular disease.
Growing up, Ingrid’s first love was books. She remembers being 7 or 8 years old and totally consumed by D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Even her first job at 16 was working at her small town’s public library.
Watergate was the world event that shaped her upbringing.
“It’s shaped my entire world outlook on everything,” Ingrid reflects on the impact it has had on her life. “But — it was great in that it fed a type of comedy that was used to drive social change. That said injustice wasn’t just wrong, it was ridiculous. My formative years coincided with comedy on network television that was very much about laughing at authority figures and political satire.”
“Subsequent generations seem oddly naive about politics, in that they’re reflexively cynical or think it’s wrong to laugh at authority or question it. Or their humor punches down instead of up.”
Disability in her family
Ingrid’s father, who lived in Germany during World War II, was separated from his family when he was five years old and sent to a place where no one spoke his language. This intergenerational trauma impacted her relationship with her father and led to his repeated job losses and the family’s financial instability that deepened after her parents’ divorce when she was 13.
“He was 65 when he told me he had had PTSD since he was 5. As an older adult, I’m relieved that we’ve been able to have conversations about this. My father has been much more in my corner than I gave him credit for because his own disability kept him from showing it.”
Finding Community in Career
Ingrid moved to SF thinking that she would become a social worker but since grad school quickly turned out to be financially out of reach, her volunteer role eventually into a paying one at the Women’s Needs Center (WNC), a program of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.
“Volunteering kind of kept me going emotionally and socially,” Ingrid recalls. “It was really the grassroots women’s community that I felt was the most connected to, it was how I got a social foothold early on in San Francisco. The grassroots women’s community there was led by women of color and queer women and the intersectional groups therein. I felt much more welcomed there on a basic level.”
It was those same experiences that reminded her of one of the best parts of living in the Bay Area: how people have become more receptive to making spaces more disability-focused.
It was in working with women of color and queer women that made her she realized this key perspective — her disability perspective — was missing in their worldview and their political work. And when she found her voice, her colleagues listened and became allies.
“That kind of openness and cross-cultural mentorship is exactly why I’m sitting here today. It continued after I moved on to other organizations like Breast Cancer Action and Equal Rights Advocates. I consider three former bosses, Belma González, the late Barbara Brenner, and Irma Hererra — two Chicanx from working-class Texas families, and one lesbian breast cancer survivor — to have been my most generous teachers and strongest allies as a white disabled woman who’d lived her whole life outside of any disability community. None of them identified as disabled while we worked together and that taught me how shared values can forge as powerful a bond even without a shared identity.”
Today, Ingrid is the Director of Development at DREDF. “One reason why this job is the best job I’ve had is it’s the only job where I walked into a situation where there is ongoing, proactive work being done around accommodations. I never had that anywhere. It reminded me of an essential thing I learned as a white woman in our staff diversity work in the 90s at WNC: Systems are stronger and more trustworthy than the best-intentioned individual. That’s why DREDF’s systemic approach to access within our own organization matters to me.”
What are the biggest changes in the Bay Area and how has it affected the disability community?
Ingrid thinks money is what has changed the most in the Bay Area.
“There’s always been a huge income gap between people who live in the Bay Area but it’s gotten wider.”
She adds, ”What I see now is an intensification of the Silicon Valley culture in which relationships are inherently transactional. San Francisco used to be seen as a place where outcasts and rebels and people who didn’t fit it in in other places could come and be welcome. Now it’s like, if you can’t do something for me, I don’t need to know you.”
On how this change has impacted the disability community, Ingrid says, “Because of the Bay Area, California as a state had been far ahead of the curve for decades, when it came to services and supports for living in the community. But the continued threats to that infrastructure, plus the overall shredding of the safety net, leads to friction between people and sets up an assumption that we can’t be working together because some people have things and other people don’t. But it’s a system problem. It’s a political problem. It’s the long term effect of people struggling to survive in a hostile environment. And it’s not new. Disabled people living on the streets has been appallingly normalized since at least the early 80s.”
Ingrid married her now-husband in 2011. On reflecting on what has made her relationship successful, Ingrid says, “I look at the last 8 years as the happiest of my life. It’s like you’re building a family even if you don’t have children of your own. For me, I love being married, getting to enjoy different phases of a relationship over time. I think it works because my husband is a family man and we share bedrock stuff around family and food and writing and being silly. I wasn’t expecting to get married at 45! Or to have a family with two great, adult kids! Much less to have all this with another disability rights advocate.”
She adds this advice, “Don’t fall for the idea that a good relationship is something that you have to work-work-work at. A good relationship is where sometimes it’s easy. It doesn’t have to be endless labor. But it’s ok to argue, too! What matters is that you both know you’re going to work it out.”
Our World Today
In thinking through what innovation Ingrid has appreciated the most, she jokes, “Pencils with good erasers.”
In the early 1990s, Ingrid’s disability was progressing in a way that she started having some trouble extending her fingers. She had a proposal she needed to get done quickly, and ended up using her pencil’s eraser to tap out her typing, which she still does today. While dictation software does exist, it often takes a bit of time to train this technology.
She has also appreciated the availability of pre-prepared, pre-cut food and food delivery services. “Grocery shopping and food preparation was a nightmare for me on an ongoing basis,” Ingrid recalls. “I couldn’t get stuff delivered to my apartment and I couldn’t really carry bags up stairs and it was a huge effort just to cut basic things up.”
In the future, Ingrid hopes to see cars designed with custom interior. “I would love to see regular-sized cars that I can roll my wheelchair into without it being a big thing.”
Advice for the Younger Generation
Whatever is going on in your head — give yourself a break. If you find yourself thinking, I should be doing this or I should have achieved that by a certain age, tell that voice to shut up or stop talking so loudly. Who you are is not about “shoulds.”
If somebody else is giving you the sense that you haven’t met some minimum requirement for being an adult, just remember that adults don’t talk to each other that way.
Being an adult means that I recognize that other people do things in their own way. What’s working for me might not be working for them.
This piece is part of the SF Shapers Intergenerational Memory Book, a series of stories and lessons from older community members in the San Francisco Bay Area.