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"Disabled' a foreign word to dynamo

MBA from Wharton. Law degree from Columbia. Job offers from three top Philadelphia law firms. Two bar exams in July, wedding in August, honeymoon in Australia.

It's a long way for a woman who wasn't expected by many to finish high school or even hold a job, except in a sheltered workshop.

Deborah Groeber, 29, is deaf and legally blind.

"A big part of my success," she said, "has come from people willing to give me a chance."

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where she will start work in the fall with 11 other junior associates, is the latest. Last year, its hiring committee chose her from close to a thousand applicants for a summer associate position. When it was over, she was offered a permanent job.

"The qualities that she has are qualities we look for in all the people we hire," said Eric Kraeutler, who is the hiring partner.

She is bright, articulate, personable and skilled in writing, he said, and she has shown a knack, throughout her life, for never backing down.

Technology has also played a role in her success.

She has a hearing aid that amplifies phone conversations, and she is so adept at interpreting the "staticky vibrations" it transmits that talking on the phone with her is as seamless as with a hearing person.

A closed-circuit TV with a camera magnifies text onto a monitor, enabling her to use her limited vision to read. It can enlarge a word in a newspaper to up to 5 inches tall.

An oversize computer monitor and special software that enlarges type give her access to Lexis and other data bases that lawyers rely on.

And if labor and employment law eventually leads her into the courtroom, as she hopes, she will probably turn to interpreters, as she did at Columbia University. Simultaneously mouthing and using sign language, they relayed every word spoken in her classes.

In ordinary conversation, she reads lips.

Fourteen years of speech therapy have erased all but a trace of the impediment she struggled with as a child in Cinnaminson, N.J. And Groeber _ blond, blue-eyed and fit from the gym _ loves to talk.

Her answers to serious questions are scrupulously detailed, with every syllable enunciated. She has a light side, too, good-naturedly chiding herself for "still" not having wedding invitations, and telling about the time she had to ask the mayor to stop petting her guide dog (a no-no) at a legal gathering.

"The joke was . . . that I would never get a job in Philadelphia," she said with a laugh.

"She amazes us," said her mother, Roberta Groeber. "Looking back, we're still awed at what she's accomplished _ and so much of it she has done on her own."

There were years of heartache and humiliation before Groeber could prove herself capable of doing what everyone said she could not.

She was deaf as an infant, but surgery restored her hearing. Sometime after age 8, though, both her vision and hearing began to deteriorate because of a rare disorder called Stargardt's disease.

Public school became a painful, frustrating ordeal for a preteen with thick glasses and hearing aids.

She sat in the front of the room so she could read lips and see the blackboard. Some teachers were more receptive to her needs than others. Socially, it was a nightmare. The other students swiped her magnifier, and worse. "I was getting beat up," she said.

School administrators suggested she try harder to fit in by wearing her long hair in a more stylish cut, and by trying makeup _ an idea she has since warmed to.

"I felt like I was losing so much in my life _ my hearing, my vision. I just wanted to be me, to be left alone to do my studies."

When she was halfway through seventh grade, her mother pulled her out of public school and put her in a Christian day school.

But in ninth grade, she returned to the public school system. She was relieved to find that relations with the other students had improved: "They ignored me."

Academically, Groeber got by. No one expected her to do well, and she delivered, barely studying. "Everyone was thrilled to death if I got C's."

But then she surprised everyone with a high score on the SAT. Suddenly, with college a possibility, she cracked the books and was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania.

There, a remarkable change occurred. Roberta Groeber remembers watching her daughter walk across campus, shoulders back, head high. "People accepted her."

Her undergraduate work at the Wharton School went well _ she graduated magna cum laude, in three years instead of four _ and she decided to pursue a Wharton MBA.

"I basically reached for the stars gradually," Groeber said. And at 22, she seemed to have them in hand.

Her prestigious degrees led her to a job as a senior financial analyst at McNeil Consumer Products Co., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary.

And then she dropped the bomb. Law school.

Her parents flat-out discouraged it. Naturally, she went for it, financing it on her own.

"She will argue with St. Peter himself at the pearly gates," her mother said.

Along the way, there was another transformation: Groeber swallowed hard and got a guide dog.

"She brought back my independence . . . but she represented my transcendency from being sighted to being blind."

Sometimes, the reaction stung. Even construction workers stopped making catcalls once she got a dog. "I turned into someone's great-grandmother."

Bonnie, a yellow Labrador retriever, more than made up for it. "She was an amazingly precise worker," Groeber said. "So professional."

The beloved Bonnie has since retired, forced from her job by hip problems. Her departure created a near crisis during Groeber's final year at Columbia. Just before exams in December, Groeber had to put her legal studies on hold and jump into an accelerated training course with a big black Lab named Duncan.

Columbia agreed to let Groeber make up her exams over Christmas. She finished just before the start of the next semester.

Typical Deborah. "She meets an obstacle, studies the situation and finds a way around it," her mother said. The same thing happened with snow skiing, weight loss and everything else she put her mind to, her mother said.

Surviving as a summer associate at Morgan Lewis last year was another test. "They came to me with rush assignments when I already had a full plate," Groeber said. "I was given the same chance to compete."

Kraeutler, the hiring partner, doesn't hesitate when asked how the firm's demanding clients will react to Groeber.

"The reaction is going to begin with great admiration and then quickly settle into a complete lack of consciousness of any disabilities," he said, "because that is how I and the other attorneys have reacted.

"Deborah is extraordinary in every way."

Her law school graduation was greeted with a media blitz that the gregarious Groeber seems to have thoroughly enjoyed.

She was Peter Jennings' "Person of the Week" on ABC's World News Tonight and was featured in the New York Times' "About New York" column.

She even got a call from a literary agent who wanted to do a book about her life. In the retelling, Groeber throws back her head and laughs as if this is the most preposterous thing she has ever heard.

She declined, telling the agent, "Contact me in 30 or 40 years, and I'll let you know how the story comes out."

Up next:THE HOT ZONE

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