Here’s what JennyLynn Dietrich would like you to know about her:
She’s taken service learning trips to Guatemala and Ghana. She’s a chocolate snob who wouldn’t dare touch the generic stuff. She’s engaged to be married next year. She loves to paint, draw, and perform on the theater stage. And she’s passionate about helping others, pointing them toward the resources that could help them change their lives.
You might learn these things if you just ask her. But Dietrich says people are often too afraid or intimidated by two of her more obvious traits: she is deaf and blind.
One of the main points Dietrich hopes to make in her TEDxSalem talk, entitled “DeafBlind: Blind but Not Blind,” is that people with disabilities value autonomy — they want to be seen as regular productive members of society, just like those without disabilities.
“We don’t want people’s pity,” she says. “We just want to be accepted as equals.”
Born with a rare hereditary condition called Stickler syndrome, Dietrich is fully blind in her left eye and has limited vision in her right. She’s also profoundly deaf in her left ear, but she can hear a bit in her right with a hearing aid. Her preferred method to communicate is American Sign Language. She also uses a form of communication called ProTactile — developed by the DeafBlind community — that involves signing on someone’s hand or using parts of their body to help give visual or emotional cues.
During her early years growing up in Oklahoma, Dietrich attended a mainstream school. It wasn’t until high school that she went to a state school for the deaf. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Ultimately she moved to Seattle to work as a Case Manager at the DeafBlind Service Center. She helped other DeafBlind people by providing services to make their lives easier — including advocacy, information and referrals, education, and outreach — and she ultimately discovered she had a passion for helping others.
One of the most useful resources Dietrich found in Seattle was Support Service Providers (SSPs) — sighted guides who provide DeafBlind people with visual information about their environment so that they can participate in regular mainstream activities such as grocery shopping, reading mail, or banking.
“When I moved to Oregon, it was a challenge because there’s not an SSP program here for people like me to access,” she says. “I’ve been working hard this year to get something like that established here by reaching out to other DeafBlind people in the community and leaders in public service.”
Dietrich came to the Willamette Valley to pursue graduate studies at Western Oregon University. She is no longer a student there, but she is focusing her time on attempting to develop supports for DeafBlind people in the state. She is currently a facilitator for a nonprofit called the Oregon DeafBlind Community Alliance Network, something she hopes will become a larger statewide organization to help provide resources to those who need it.
Advocacy would be a critical part of their work — to help the general public look beyond their disabilities and learn about their interests, their personalities, and their goals.
“Instead of watching us in fear from afar,” she says, “be brave, and come and learn from us by engaging with us!”