Obituary - Wendy Fisher

12th March 2010 at 00:00


When Wendy Fisher started campaigning on behalf of dyslexic children, she was a housewife with an academically unsuccessful daughter and a dining-table scattered with scientific papers and funding requests.

By the time she died, earlier this month, Dyslexia Action had become Britain's largest dyslexia teacher training organisation, conducting more than 10,000 pupil assessments a year in 25 centres across the country.

Mrs Fisher was born in 1925, the daughter of an army doctor serving in colonial India. As a girl, she travelled with her father's job, living briefly in Egypt before settling in Britain.

She was a teenager when the Second World War broke out; she enlisted with the Wrens, carrying out engineering and maintenance work on aeroplanes.

At the war's end, she enrolled on a course at the Architectural Association in London. On graduation, she went to work for the Greater London Council, helping to plan the post-war reconstruction of the capital.

But she abandoned architecture when she married Tony Fisher, another army man. Again, she travelled with the troops, settling in Surrey to raise their two children, Sophy and Tom.

It was in the early 1960s that Sophy first began to struggle at school. Her mother could see that she was a bright child, yet this was not reflected in her class work. So, with the resolve one might expect of a middle-class army wife, Mrs Fisher marched Sophy off to a London psychologist, who diagnosed her as dyslexic.

At the time, dyslexia was widely dismissed as a middle-class ailment: the griping of parents unwilling to accept their children's academic mediocrity. Mrs Fisher knew this was not the case. And so she set up the North Surrey Dyslexia Society, to campaign on behalf of her daughter, and to help others with the same condition.

Drawing on her father's medical experience, she took a rigorously scientific approach to the subject. In 1969, she launched the Dyslexia Review, containing articles by the leading experts of the time.

And, three years later, she and local special-needs teacher Kathleen Hickey set up the first Dyslexia Institute, and developed a multi-sensory teaching method for dyslexic children. This method still forms the cornerstone of dyslexia teaching today.

From the days when campaigns were run from her Surrey dining room, Mrs Fisher demonstrated a natural gift for public relations. In the 1970s, when dyslexia was still socially marginalised, she arranged for Princess Margaret to visit the institute. On another occasion, she persuaded well-known authors to donate autographed books for a fundraising auction.

Gradually, institutes began to open across the country, from Glasgow to Bath. Each offered three different facilities: psychologists to provide assessment, training for teachers, and twice-weekly lessons for dyslexic pupils.

By 1981, she was influential enough to be asked to contribute to Baroness Warnock's review of special needs teaching, arguing that dyslexic children should be included among those eligible for this provision.

Her determination was inspiring: many of her colleagues regarded her with a combination of admiration and fear. "Well, if you won't do it, somebody else will," she was known to chide recalcitrant colleagues, in her pukka colonial accent. It did not matter that there were not that many dyslexia workers, or that funding was often in short supply: somehow, she would find someone to do the job.

She retired in 1985, to run a bookshop with Tony in Twickenham. Sophy, meanwhile, progressed to Cambridge to study English, and then to work for the BBC in Thailand. This allowed her mother to advance a long-standing interest in cookery: she travelled to the Far East and enrolled in a Thai cookery course.

In 2002, The Dyslexia Institute changed its name to Dyslexia Action. The decision met with her disapproval: she felt "institute" conveyed a sense of academic respectability lacking from the word "action"." But she knew it was time to back off: her institute was in other hands now.

Besides, she was always an old-fashioned stoic. This became evident at Christmas, when she was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She had been experiencing headaches for a year, but had chosen to push on regardless. She died on February 16.

Wendy Fisher is survived by her children, Sophy and Tom.

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