Inform & Connect, the American Foundation for the Blind’s ongoing series created to foster togetherness and camaraderie within the blindness community through informal storytelling and learning about relevant, interesting topics. Today, Melody's guest is Catherine Harrison, a professional commercial print and fitness model.
Catherine was a Registered Nurse prior to her sight loss. She was diagnosed in 1995 with retinitis pigmentosa, only weeks after returning from serving for two years on the mission field in Nigeria. When her eyesight worsened to the degree she could no longer be effective in nursing, she forged a new career path that has blossomed. She has been a national public speaker and article writer for several magazines, sharing her story of learning to walk with strength and faith behind a white cane. Her mission is not only to successfully work as a model who happens to have a visual impairment, but to empower women of all ages to step into their strength, regardless of their circumstances, with poise and courage.
Melody Goodspeed: A fitness model and she is just absolutely amazing and such an advocate. And when I think of Catherine, I just, she just makes me smile and I've never met somebody that has motivated me in the short time we've known each other as much as she has. So welcome, Catherine. I'm so glad you're hanging out with us today.
Catherine Harrison: Thanks, I'm happy to be here.
Melody Goodspeed: So glad that you're here. We were just talking about Texas being open, so we're all going to catch a flight and go there afterwards. Hope you don't mind.
Catherine Harrison: No, I don't mind. It's a big flight, come on.
Melody Goodspeed: We're kind of come on down, okay, great. So, Catherine, what I want go ahead is there's so many places we can go together because we've talked about so many things, but I just want everybody to get... Just tell us a little bit about your story, I think we should start there. And just let us know about how you got started and your background.
Catherine Harrison: Okay. Well, I am actually a registered nurse by education and during nursing school is when I started doing a little modeling while I was in Dallas. And really enjoyed it, had a lot of fun doing it, did commercials for Radio Shack and Sears, JC Penny, some good big names, so I had a lot of fun doing it. But then once I got into nursing and became an operating room nurse, I kind of put modeling to the side and then had my family and raised them. And in the process of doing that, I've lived overseas in many different countries practicing nursing and medicine. My husband's a physician, so we did mission work and I raised three boys.
But in the process in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. And the sobering diagnosis was when I was holding my third born son. He was a newborn and I had been to see the doctor because things were just... Obviously, I was not able to see well. And he said, "Well, I need you to take a good look at the face of that baby, because you'll never see him as a man." And that was a really hard day. I didn't understand and I had to learn a whole lot about RP and the prognosis, and really begin to prepare myself for the darkness that was coming. And so I did lots of things, everything from learn to read braille, I went to school for the blind in Austin and got some mobility training and computer skills and everything else I thought I needed so I would just be ready when it happened.
Well, as you know, with RP, it's progressive, it takes... For me, it's taken a long time. But it was really frustrating to live in between the two worlds, in between the sighted and visually handicapped world. And so finally I lost enough of my sight where I just kind of made the leap and live more or less in that world, as a visually handicapped person. But kind of came to a point where I had to redefine myself. I couldn't be a nurse anymore, the kids are grown and gone. So now what do I do? I don't want to just sit at home in the dark. I want to be productive, I want to do my thing. And so that's when I decided to go back to modeling. I've always been big on fitness and working out, things like that, but I lost about, I don't know, 25 pounds got myself in really great shape and got a portfolio together and then got an agent in Dallas and have gone back to work.
And have really found not just modeling, because I don't necessarily do it just as a visually handicapped person, I compete in the regular market with other fitness models and with everybody. So I have to be able to function 100% just like they do. So that was really a learning process for me. And I found a whole lot of strength in doing that and began to really kind of advocate with younger girls and even women my age. That there's really no good excuse for just sitting at home in the dark feeling sorry for yourself. There's so much life out there to be lived and if you need to take courses or classes or learn how to do something to get to that next level, then do it, by God, what are you waiting for? I feel like I have this second half of life and I'm having more fun I think, than I did in the first half. So-
Melody Goodspeed: I think you are too, Catherine, from the stories we've shared.
Catherine Harrison: Yeah, I am. Life's a whole lot more funny. I can laugh at myself a whole lot more than... I used to take myself a whole lot more seriously.
Melody Goodspeed: I want to... There's two stories that you've shared with me that just have really touched me, and I want to just roll back a little bit. And when you talked about when you went to Austin to do training, you know how I feel, and everyone in this audience, about shoes, I love stilettos and all that good stuff. And when we first met, when I was at your photo shoot, which was amazing, the story you shared with me with the mobility instructor, can you share that with us?
Catherine Harrison: I will. I know as a woman, we all have this dream of being so beautiful or fabulously dressed that we literally can stop traffic. That people will stop and they're staring, just like in a commercial or something. Well, I actually had that experience where I stopped traffic. Came to a dead stand still, a huge big intersection in Austin, Texas. And that was not because I looked really great or had on a really great outfit. It was because I was in the middle of the road. I was in my training, and so we had to wear a big blindfold and I had done my assignment for the day, go to the bank and then come back using public transportation, all these things. And with a great amount of confidence, I tapped my way to what I thought was the other side of the street. But what I didn't realize is I had wandered into the center of the intersection.
And I applaud the people in Austin in that they literally just sat there and their cars, all four sides and waited for me to figure it out. Nobody honked at me, nobody yelled. But about a minute into standing there listening for traffic, trying to figure out the flow of traffic, I heard someone get out of their car and this woman came and took me by the arm and she said, "Let me help you." I said, "Oh no, I don't need any help. I'm all good." Because I had no idea I was in the middle of the intersection. And it wasn't until that point when I did not hear traffic moving, no one, there was no flow, I thought to myself, "They're not moving because I'm in the middle." And so I did make my way to the curb and then had to figure out which direction am I facing.
But the minute I got to the curb and stepped up on it, I could, I could literally hear applause. That the people in their cars were applauding. It was as if they were cheering for me, they were waiting for me to figure it out. And I think in the back of their minds, a lot like I did, was they're looking at me thinking, "What if that was me? If she can do it, then I can do it. And I'm going to pull for her. I'm going to root for her." And I found really a whole calling in that moment that if I can be that example, if someone can look at me while I'm failing, but they see that I press through and I continue to rise and rise. I didn't just give up, I didn't start crying, I didn't do anything else, I figured it out and I made it to the corner. And people see that and they are encouraged.
And so it just becomes a power, a powerful force that I think if everyone could do that, regardless of what your circumstance is. It's okay for people to see you fail or to see you make a mistake, as long as they see you rise after. And then you are the encouragement. And so for me, that was a humble pill to swallow for them to watch me do that. But to hear them applaud and to know that I had encouraged people was a powerful thing for me and really kind of started me on this trajectory, I think, of being willing to be an example of what it looks like. Sometimes you get it, right, sometimes you don't, but you just keep going and find that strength, whatever it is.
I've teased with you, Melody, when, when I started my mobility training and I went to my instructor, I dress to kill every day. That's just my personality. And when I went to class, he was blind as well. He ran his hand down my leg to feel my shoe and he felt my high heeled shoe, which is what I always wear. And he looked at me, he says, "Now, honey, you're going to have to go back to your room and change." And I "Well, why do I need to do that?" He said, "Well, you can't be blind in those shoes. You need to put on sensible shoes, tennis shoes, something flat so I can teach you how to walk and what not, with your cane." And I just stopped and I looked at him and I said, "Well, are you any good at your job?" He said, "Well, yes, I'm very good." I said, "Then you need to teach me how to be blind in these shoes."
Melody Goodspeed: I love that story.
Catherine Harrison: Because that's just my personality. I don't want to have to be somebody else because of what's happened to me. If I can't still be me, then we have a problem. And so he indeed let me do it. Every single day for mobility I had on some kind of unreasonable shoe, absolutely unreasonable. Now, did I trip a little bit? Sure I did, but I looked good going down, I can tell you that.
Melody Goodspeed: I love that story.
Catherine Harrison: Yeah, I just never let it throw me for a loop. And I kind of became the poster child after that, that you can be blind and be funny and look fabulous. You can have it all. And I intend to.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes, and I love it. And I think there's a strong message, underlining message that I've taken away from it, Catherine, is that you were like, "Hold up, I'm going to cross the street." And you also were like, "I'm going to do this, but I am going to rise." And then you're also just the power of saying, "I'm not going to let blindness define who I am." And I think a lot of... I know myself, losing, as we've discussed, losing my eyesight in my twenties, you do feel like that you have to make this change, and you don't. You really don't, and I love that. But, and I thank you so much for telling those two stories. But the modeling world is a tough world. Can you tell us about how, because the other story that I loved, fast forward to when you got back into modeling, that you told us about how that transition went and what you had to do to get back there. And if you could share that with us.
Catherine Harrison: Yes, it is different. When I modeled before it was in the eighties, and so we didn't have the internet, we didn't have digital, any of that. So to get back into it there was a little learning curve in that regard. And then also to be able to do it without being able to see the camera or photographers often don't speak to you, they just give you hand motions of where they want you to turn or look, things like that. And so I had to get in front of the camera, spend a lot of time in front of the camera with different photographers, and they knew my situation and practice, practice, practice. And learn how to ask them for what help I needed.
So when I go for an audition and I walk in the room, now they have seen my portfolio, but there aren't pictures of me with white cane in there. There's just pictures of me and you can't look at my pictures and tell I have a visual handicap. So when I walk in the room, there's often a surprised look on their face and it's very quiet when they see that white cane. And so I've had to learn to help them help me. Take responsibility for that. As soon as I walk in, I say to them, "Don't let that white cane bother you. All I need you to do is show me my mark and tell me where the camera is and I'll do my thing."
And immediately they know I have control of myself and my situation. They're not going to have to do anything special. So I fold up my cane and get on my mark and then I start to do what I've been trained to do. And then they relax, we have fun and they forget that I even have this until we're done and I have to unfold my cane again to walk out. And so it's been empowering for me to learn how to ask them for help or tell them what it is I'm going to need so that they don't feel uncomfortable and immediately dismiss me as a candidate for this job. So I've had to advocate for myself a whole lot, there isn't anybody out there really doing a whole lot of what I do. I know of one other blind model in the state of Texas. Otherwise, I don't think there are very many of us.
So, it does take a lot of learning and that's my responsibility, it's not a photographer's. But I do have to ask them, "Okay, I need you to talk to me. I can't hear pointing. I need you to say, 'Look to the right, look to the left.'" And some photographers I've worked with multiple times, I know what they're going to say. Like the shoot that you sat in on Melody with Julia, I've worked with Julia before. So I know exactly what she's going to say after "Look down," she's going to go "Tilt your head." She kind of has a pattern to what it is... The photos that I know she wants. So I kind of get into a rhythm and just do it. She's like, "It's like you know what's coming." I say, "I do know what's coming. I've heard you say it before."
So it's my job to pay attention and be good at what I do. Don't expect... I want to keep the bar high, not just for visually handicapped people, but as a model that you can expect me to be professional and be good at what I do, regardless of my handicap. And I think that's where I would love to see all of us in this community really take the bar up and yeah, we're just as professional as everybody else and just as capable to do these things. So...
Melody Goodspeed: No, I love that. And I think too, that that empowerment of raising the bar. But one thing I do love about you. Too, is just, it's not about even in your bio and the time I've spent with you and what you've stated earlier, it's not about whatever your situation may be. We all have these bars we need to raise within ourselves, no matter our situations. And I think that when with you, I have... I know that we've discussed this before, too, when you have a vision impairment or are totally blind, like myself, you do raise the bar and I think that that speaks well of what other people could do some self-reflection, as well.
Catherine Harrison: Yes.
Melody Goodspeed: Tell us a little bit about your advocacy, because you do a lot of it.
Catherine Harrison: I do. I did public speaking for a lot of years and enjoyed that, but it was a runaway train. You can just do a whole lot of it and I'm, oddly enough, naturally an introvert. I am a happy introvert, but one has had to be extroverted when the situation arises. So I instead really, I love to write, I love to write some of the funny stories that happened to me and always have some kind of empowering or encouraging message at the end of them. And I do a lot on Instagram, I connect with a lot of people on Instagram via Fighting Blindness or retinitis pigmentosa. And I get into a lot of conversations one-on-one, particularly with young people, newly diagnosed and they see me, I'm 20 plus years down the road, they're like, "How do I get from here to there?" And just kind of talking with them and working with them.
And then a whole lot of the advocacy I do is not with the visually handicapped community, but with the sighted world. And being in amongst them and with my children's friends, that sort of thing too, I don't want to say normalize it, but kind of.
Melody Goodspeed: Oh, it is.
Catherine Harrison: It's not a unique thing. My kids' friends used to play with my canes like light sabers. They would have battles with them, they didn't think anything about playing with a blind person's cane. And how great is that? I mean the first cane I ever touched was my own. And so it's a little scary. These kids are not afraid of it, they're not afraid to be around me or walk on eggshells, any of that kind of thing. So it helps for me to really not just stay in my little comfortable circle where you're with other visually handicapped people who understand your situation, but to really get out there and be visible and be in places where people don't really expect to find you. I love that, actually.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. No, it is, it's great. And that's definitely one thing, what we... Our mission at AFB is a life with no limits and the inclusion, that's such a piece of it and it. And it truly rings true, it's like we need to get to a space where a cane is seen as power and it's seen as equals. And you're doing that in such a fantastic and beautiful way. And I thank you so much for being here today with us and I can't even believe it's already time for our question and answer, this has gone by very fast.
Melody Goodspeed: Catherine, thank you so much for joining us today. We so appreciate it. And we appreciate all of you for joining us and hope that you have a great rest of your week. So thank you guys so much for joining us and have a wonderful day. Bye.