By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – If Nichole Maples were a book, you might be tempted to judge her cover.
Cerebral palsy has left her profoundly disabled and unable to walk or talk. It takes a supreme act of will for the 18-year-old Tupelo resident to control her arms.
It’s common for people to see Nichole’s outside and ignore what’s happening on the inside. If they were to open the book, they might be surprised to find a teenage girl.
“If she’s reading a magazine and doesn’t think someone is dressed the right way, she’ll let you know,” said her mom, Valerie Maples.
Nichole isn’t able to dress herself, but she has definite ideas about clothes.
“She loves to wear dresses. People think I choose them for her, but it’s her. That’s what she wants,” Valerie said. “We had a family picture, and everybody wore Mississippi State shirts and jeans. She wouldn’t smile. She wasn’t happy because she wanted to wear a dress.”
Nichole is a Bulldog fan with a Bully bell on her wheelchair, and her room is awash in maroon. When attending football and baseball games in Starkville, she knows what’s important.
“She’s like other girls her age,” said her dad, Doug Maples. “She watches all of the guys on the team.”
Nichole also believes in the power of prayer and helping those in need, another pair of traits she shares with young people in Northeast Mississippi.
“She gave her books and toys and educational supplies to kids in Smithville,” Valerie said.
It takes time to get beneath the surface. Her teacher, Jamie Storment, spends several hours a week with Nichole and still doesn’t always know what she’s thinking.
“We went outside and learned about all different types of trees on Tuesday,” Jamie said.
“Jamie was sure she had bored Nichole to death on their walk,” Valerie said, “but the next day Nichole told me they identified four types of oak.”
When Nichole was four years old, her brain was scanned, and a doctor gave her adoptive parents an important bit of information.
“He said, ‘Don’t ever let people tell you she’s not developing,’” Valerie said, “so we read to her all the time. She cried all the time. Remember all the crying?”
“Oh, yeah,” Doug said.
“And we read to her,” Valerie said.
As Nichole grew up, the constant crying stopped, and the love for books grew into a true passion.
“If you give her a choice between a book and a movie, she’ll choose a book,” Valerie said. “I’ve never heard her choose a movie over a book – ever. What kid can you say that about?”
Nichole can read books on a screen positioned on her wheelchair. Software from Bookshare is installed on her computer, so Nichole can access a growing library of books that have been converted into digital form.
“She loves biographies and histories,” Valerie said. “She also loves historical fiction. She wants to know about the world.”
Nichole read 140 books during the summer of 2010. In 2011, she set a goal of 170, and it required a two-book-a-day schedule.
She can read on her own, but it strains her body to stay focused on the screen, so others also read to her.
“For the last 10 days, she ran out of steam, and she got behind,” Valerie said. “When she had three or four days left, we told her, ‘If you don’t want to set a goal next year, that’s fine, but we need to see this through.’”
“For those three or four days, she and I read for 12 hours a day,” Doug said.
It’s a cliché to say books are a window into the world, but it’s a basic truth for Nichole.
“Too many people wouldn’t have tried to teach her how to read,” Valerie said.
Nichole has such a deep appreciation for what reading has done for her that she’s become something of an evangelist for adaptive technology.
“Nichole has taught me more than I’ve taught her,” Jamie said, “just about getting books out there, the different technologies and where to find resources. She’ll give me anything she has that she feels like another one of my students could use.”
Nichole recently attended an American Library Association conference in New Orleans, where she met with publishers, authors and librarians. Valerie did the talking, but it was Nichole’s message.
“She wants kids to read,” Valerie said. “She just wants people to be encouraged to read.”
This goes beyond self-interest and beyond a desire to get more books available for people with disabilities. The way she sees it, reading is for everyone.
Nichole’s aid, Sheina Daniel, wasn’t a strong reader when she started working with the Maples family.
Through smiles and frowns, as well as messages on her computer and others translated by Valerie, Nichole let it be known that one of Sheina’s duties was to read to her.
“When she got her equipment, she was excited about having books in front of her that she could read by herself,” Valerie said. “Nichole actually gave that up, so Sheina could read to her.”
Since then, Sheina has developed a new hobby and a new talent.
“I love all the books,” said Sheina, who’s started reading to her three kids at home.
“Sheina is the best storyteller now of all of us,” Valerie said. “Sometimes, we turn the intercom on and listen when she reads to Nichole. She does the voices. She’s great.”
Nichole will never be a completely open book. No one will ever know everything that goes on behind her eyes, which makes her no different from the rest of us.
Admittedly, Nichole’s a tougher read than most, but it’s a rewarding story.
“She can convince other people,” Valerie said. “They just have to spend time with her.”