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Each Hurdle is a Chance to Soar
By Michael T. Kaufman
Reprinted from The New York Times

When Deborah G. Groeber marches with her dog Duncan in Columbia University's graduation exercises tomorrow, she will, she says, be thinking of the journey she has made to attain her law degree and of those who helped her along the way. She may, however, pause to think about those who once cautioned her not to set her sights so high, since she is deaf and blind. If she smirks a little, it will be understandable.

Ever since Ms. Groeber was in third grade, there were school officials who tried to steer her out of their classes into more custodial programs, citing her deteriorating sight and hearing. There were teachers who did not let her into gym. There were guidance counselors who said she should not go to college, and there have been all sorts of people who keep trying to do things for her without asking.

By now, it is clear that the 29-year-old Ms. Groeber has triumphed over them and their timidities. She has finished law school and been hired by a Philadelphia firm. Six years ago, she earned an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She also completed her undergraduate studies at Wharton, graduating magna cum laude. For two years before law school, she worked as a senior financial analyst. She lived on her own, learned to ski, did aerobics. She fell in love. At the end of this summer, she is to marry her fiancé, Anthony Cirillo.

"People look at my record and they see one thing, then they meet me and they see something else," Ms. Groeber said, sitting in the room of the law library with the magnifying machines, sound amplifiers and Braille punchers she used when studying. The conversation confirmed her words. Though she cannot hear, she forms words without defect.

Though she is legally blind and can hardly see beyond a few feet, she focuses on the mouths of speakers, reading lips perfectly. Her blue eyes may have failed her, but they charm those who look into them. She could be a model for a preppie clothes catalogue or a cheerleader from a school with a highly competitive cheerleading program.

Lance Liebman, the dean of Columbia Law School, who taught her employment law, said he never really understood why Congress had felt obliged to change the language of law, replacing the term "disabled" with the designation "persons with disabilities." "Thanks to Deborah, I understand," said Mr. Liebman. "Deborah is not disabled. She is a person who has disabilities and so many more talents and advantages that she owes society tremendous contributions."

She traced the challenges she has overcome. She was born and raised in Cinnaminson, NJ, one of five children of Bruce and Roberta Groeber. She was deaf as an infant, but after she had taught herself to lip-read, surgery restored her hearing. She spent her early childhood hearing, talking, seeing and reading. Then, when she was 8, her eyesight worsened. She was found to have Stargardt's disease, a genetically caused degenerative eye disorder.

"One out of 10 cases suffers accompanying deafness, and I was one of those," she said.

In the fifth and sixth grades, her life worsened. "I was changing and I would stare at people," she said. "Some classmates teased me. I kept telling myself it will get better next week. I asked myself why is this happening?"

Her parents fought to have her enter the local high school. But as her sight and hearing deteriorated, they saw to it that she learned Braille and sign language. Then when she surprised her teachers and herself by doing very well on the SATs as a junior, they supported her resolve to go to college.

She loved Wharton, she said: "My roommates and friends were wonderfully accepting. It was like, 'Oh, you're deaf and blind, that's really neat, let's go get some pizza.'"

It was there she perfected the techniques of study. In seminars she would sit close enough to the professor to lip-read. Where that was not possible, she had an interpreter who would translate what was being said into sign language. For reading, she would use either Braille materials or a machine that magnified print into foot-high letters. It was also while she was at Wharton that she decided to get a seeing-eye dog.

"That was my biggest decision," Ms. Groeber said. "My parents didn't like the idea. They had wanted me to look as normal as possible. Once you had a dog, it was clear you didn't just have poor eyesight. You were blind. But I was bumping into things."

She obtained Bonnie, her first dog, from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights. "We were a good team for eight years," Ms. Groeber said, explaining how Bonnie developed arthritis and retired. Bonnie now lives with Ms. Groeber's parents and will be sitting with them at the graduation ceremony watching her old mistress and partner walk down with Duncan.

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