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Congratulations Jenny Coffin on earning your degree after 15 years and a lifetime of challenges. (photo by David L. Coffin)

Anybody who follows this column knows that occasionally I vent about what I perceive to be injustices. (OK, maybe it’s more than occasionally.) But today I’m proudly writing about my eldest niece, Jennifer. You see, 45 years ago Jenny was born deaf and blind in one eye (from German measles) and on Wednesday she graduated from Cal State Northridge. So I can almost assure you that this column will be rant-free. (Hopefully.)

Fortunately, as a society, we have also graduated, to some degree. (No pun intended.) I’m talking about people’s attitudes toward those with special needs and challenges. As Steve, a disabled friend, jokes, “If you have to be in a wheel chair, this is probably the best time to do it.” (A tragic example of “attitude” is that decades ago deafness was commonly referred to as “deaf and dumb.”)

As it happens, Jenny began grade school right here in Santa Monica in 1971. From personal observation, I can attest that our school system wasn’t really equipped to accommodate hearing impaired children. In a way, even the John Tracy Clinic, perhaps the most famous hearing loss treatment center in the country, let Jenny and her parents down. They rejected her because she had two impairments, hearing and vision.

All her life, my niece had battled the odds. In addition to the challenges growing up, as an adult she contracted Ménière’s disease, causing vertigo so severe she was basically bed-ridden for two years. Thankfully, a Cochlear implant operation brought the vertigo under control.

Just three years ago, at CSUN, Jenny had to deal with someone’s ignorance — a professor no less. He inadvertently sent her an e-mail which he intended for his teaching assistant. Complaining about deaf students, the professor wrote a limerick making fun of my niece. (One that he’s fortunate I didn’t get a chance to respond to in person.) But, focused on her degree, Jenny insisted that our family forgive him and, amazingly enough, his class became her all-time favorite. Go figure.

Jenny credits much of her determination to the support from her parents, Brenda and Dave, from her husband (also named David) and her younger sister, Erin, who recently got her master’s in psychology. (And also got engaged!)

In addition, Jenny credits a teacher at Pierce College who reached out. She persuaded Jennifer to attend a rigorous year-long reading program which gave her the skills to compete with hearing students. But it was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that provided the help that Jennifer needed.

Until ADA, college for Jenny had been like pushing a boulder uphill. She couldn’t hear the professor’s lectures nor, in most cases, get close enough to read their lips. But after ADA, schools had to provide interpreters for deaf students.

So it was that, in 2008, Jennifer returned to CSUN and could see a path for herself, albeit one step at a time. This past Wednesday, when she participated in CSUN’s graduation ceremony, she took the last step on that journey.

But there will be other journeys for Jennifer. As she begins her job search as a college graduate, she’s hoping to get one helping others, perhaps deaf students who are facing the same difficulties she did many years ago. Then Jenny could make a difference like her teacher at Pierce.

In these budget-cutting times I doubt if ADA legislation would ever pass. Apparently giant oil corporations will always get their subsidies but the disabled can’t afford high-priced lobbyists. Whoops, this is sounding dangerously close to a rant. So I’ll end by just saying, “Congratulations Jenny, love Uncle Jack.”

Jennifer can be reached at Jennycoffin@att.net while Jack is at Jnsmdp@aol.com.

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