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March 2004



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By Margaret G. Zackowitz
If what occupies their roadsides also occupies their minds, then the people of Talladega, Alabama, must be pondering cars and God. Churches and auto repair shops are everywhere in this Bible Belt town, home to Nascar's biggest, fastest track, the Talladega Superspeedway.

But there's more to Talladega than a fondness for heaven and horsepower. Listen: A talking crosswalk in the square in front of the courthouse says when it's safe to step off the curb. Look: Ladies chatting in a café also absentmindedly speak in sign language. The town post office sells stamp books marked in Braille. And at high school football games, the snap is noted with blows to a bass drum, so deaf players will feel the sound's vibration and know the ball's in play.

What might pass for disability elsewhere can pass here without much notice. That's because for more than a century Talladega has been home to the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, AIDB. Any hearing- orvision-impaired state resident can attend for free, and from age three and up, hundreds do. Many feel so comfortable in Talladega that they stay for the rest of their lives. There's a sense of belonging for the first time. "This place," they'll tell you, "feels like family."

Many leave their real families to attend. Norman Culver, age 56, has been blind from birth. He was six when he came to the Alabama School for the Blind—one of the institute's four academies, along with a school for the deaf, one for children with multiple disabilities, and a trade school for adults. Most students, even the three-year-olds, live in campus dormitories. "My mother and I rode the Trailways bus all the way from Huntsville, 90 miles away," Norman remembers of his arrival. "I didn't know she was going to leave me. She got me to playing with another little boy, and next thing I knew she'd disappeared." Norman learned years later that his mother hadn't left right away. "She watched me for a couple of hours, crying," he says, "before she could turn around and go."

Norman thrived at the school, where he stayed through 12th grade. After touring the South as a professional singer ("Music at blind schools," he says, "is like football everywhere else"), he returned to Talladega for a job at Alabama Industries for the Blind, the institute's workshop. Now he helps manage the place, which is the second largest employer in Talladega County. Workers here sew almost a million neckties a year, among other items, supplying every neck in the United States military. They also make mops, brooms, cleaning brushes, notebook paper and easel pads, toner cartridges, and American flags. Alabama Industries provides jobs for more than 300 Talladegans, most of them blind or deaf. "Everybody needs work to do," Norman says. "We'll modify our machines, we'll do whatever it takes, to make it possible for people to earn a living."

The institute began with its School for the Deaf, founded in 1858 by J. H. Johnson, a young physician inspired by Thomas Gallaudet's pioneering work educating the deaf. Johnson bought a vacant building in Talladega and turned it into a school with a grant from the Alabama State Legislature, which still provides most of AIDB's funding. Within a year 21 deaf children, including Johnson's own younger brother, were enrolled. In 1867 the School for the Blind was started. A third academy, for children who are both deaf and blind, opened in 1955. Now known as the Helen Keller School, it also serves children who have additional disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy.

Today there are about twice as many students at the School for the Deaf than at the School for the Blind, the institute's two largest academies. A friendly rivalry exists. "We tend to have more of a sense of humor about ourselves," insists Jason Martin, a 17-year-old blind student. He and fellow senior Donte Little freely admit that target practice is not the strong point of their ROTC training. "But you can only laugh at yourself if you believe in yourself," adds the boys' teacher, Brenda Uptain, whose own vision is impaired. "Self-confidence is one of the most important lessons we teach."

At AIDB the staff slips in such lessons wherever it can. All blind students receive mobility training to allow them to navigate unfamiliar places using canes. The School for the Deaf's football team, the Silent Warriors, holds its own against local high schools, and won the Deaf School Football National Championship in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians arena—a 47,000-square-foot indoor riding ring—serves some 100 students a week, including many with severe physical disabilities. They improve their flexibility, balance, and coordination with specially supervised horseback riding known as hippotherapy.

"See that girl?" asks Tim Greene, the arena manager. A small group of children from the Helen Keller School, two of them in wheelchairs, has arrived to ride. At the center of the arena, the student Tim points out already sits astride a placid gray pony. She is deaf, and her expression is solemn; plastic braces encase her legs. Volunteer assistants post themselves on either side of the saddle to hold her steady while a physical therapist signs instructions with flying hands. "She wasn't even walking when she started this program," says Tim. "Now she can get around with a walker. Other children who've never been able to interact well with people all of a sudden start talking to a horse. These kids get more from this than just the exercise."

And they get more from Talladega than just an education. Out in the dusty riding ring, as if to prove the point, the girl leans forward in her saddle and plants a kiss on the pony's bristled mane.

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