The View From Within

Nicole Spencer's trip to the National Aquarium was no ordinary outing. For the blind and deaf teen, it was a chance to explore another world


No one knew exactly how Nicole Spencer would feel about going to the National Aquarium. The staff at the Maryland School for the Blind felt certain that the other students -- sunny, easygoing Glenn, Danny the chatterbox, and inquisitive Michael -- would love the experience. They could listen to dolphins squeak and splash. They could hear a tour guide describe the graceful, floating movements of sting rays. They could ask if a turtle would bite before they reached out to touch its shell.

Sixteen-year-old Spencer couldn't do any of those things. Unable to hear or speak since her birth as a 1 1/2-pound preemie, blind since her retinas detached at age 8, Spencer's world contained only touch, taste and smell.

When the National Aquarium opened its doors for a tour for disabled people last week, Spencer's guide at school, LaCarol Getz, worried: What if Spencer got bored and unhappy standing around while the other students listened and talked and imagined? Spencer's mind, walled off from visual or auditory sensations, craved constant stimuli.

Getz always tried to keep Spencer occupied by signing to her -- Spencer could understand sign language if she felt the shape of Getz's fingers -- but even so, sometimes a wait for an elevator could seem interminable to Spencer.

Getz knew, though, that her job wasn't to protect Spencer, but to teach her. Whenever Spencer poured a glass of milk and forgot to put her finger inside the glass, Getz let the milk overflow. When Spencer walked ahead of Getz and bumped into people, she was the one who had to sign "`I'm sorry."

"Sometimes people question me," Getz said, "but she's got to learn."

The more Spencer learns and experiences, the more her world stretches. So Getz decided that yes, they would go to the aquarium. Other outings they'd planned had been successful. Spencer had reveled in the symphony of odor and texture at a grocery store: The pockmarked shell of an avocado, the perfume of a box of herbal tea, the cool smoothness of a carton of yogurt. At the barber shop, she'd gaped in astonishment as she felt the face of another guide from school both before and after he'd had his beard shaved off.

Spencer always seemed to find beauty and wonder in the ordinary. Sometimes Getz wondered just who was teaching whom.

Getz had once tried to learn what it felt like to be Spencer. For one hour, she wore a blindfold and earplugs and walked from a parking lot into a grocery store. As she bumped into parked cars and worried about tripping over curbs, she reminded herself that she'd been to that store before, and there wasn't any danger. But she was frightened, her steps tentative: "I was never quite sure if that next step would lead me into a pit of nothingness."

How did Spencer do it? she wondered. The teen-ager was small for her age, but she was anything but delicate. Whenever she faced a setback -- if she bumped her head or dropped her fork -- she didn't let the pain or frustration win. She just kept plowing ahead.

It was that spirit that won Demeris Spencer's heart when little 3-year-old Nicole came to live with her as a foster child. "She's a fighter," said Demeris Spencer, a single parent who never expected to become a mother -- let alone the mother of a disabled child. But Demeris Spencer discovered she couldn't let the child go, and adopted her.

Spencer had already endured so much. She hadn't been expected to live, and spent the first year of her life in the neonatal care unit at D.C. General Hospital in Washington. During her early years at Demeris Spencer's Washington home, the two spent hours working together on sign language. Demeris Spencer, an instructional aide at Gallaudet University -- a school for the hearing-impaired in Washington -- was already fluent in American Sign Language. She painstakingly taught the little girl the signs she needed to communicate.

Then came the terrible news that Spencer would lose her vision. "I felt I'd been cursed," said Demeris Spencer. "I questioned God and asked why he'd allow my baby to become blind. People told me to give her back." Instead, she found out about the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore.

Every Friday, Spencer comes home, where her mother and the other four children she has adopted -- including a hearing-impaired 12-year-old boy -- are waiting. And every Sunday, Spencer rides a bus back to the school, where she takes field trips such as the one to the aquarium.

Her fellow students from the School for the Blind loved the tour, just as everyone thought they would. Chatty Danny tried to persuade the tour guide to let him get closer to the sting rays -- "It'd be a good idea to let a few of us swim down there;" and easygoing Glenn smiled just about the entire time; and inquisitive Michael soaked up information about frogs and starfish and turtles.

As for Spencer -- well, as usual, she found beauty in the unlikeliest place. It happened when an aquarium worker passed around the skull of a dolphin so the students could feel the shape of the animal's head.

When Spencer's turn came to touch the smooth ivory bone, she reached out with fingernails painted pink by her mother. She felt the tiny rows of sharp teeth, then pointed to her own teeth.

"Yes, yes, teeth!" Getz said. Getz laughed a moment later when Spencer excitedly signed something else: "She wants to take it home with her!"

"Oh my," Getz breathed, translating Spencer's rapid signs: "Head, teeth, animal."

Then: "She's giving it a kiss!"

And then Getz was silent as she simply watched Spencer. Because Spencer was clutching the dolphin skull to her chest, and smiling, and swaying back and forth, back and forth.

She was dancing.

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