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By Margaret G. ZackowitzPhotographs by David McLain



In Talladega, Alabama, hearing and sight aren't requirements for the good life.



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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- or vision-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 [150 kilometers] 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."

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Learn about a visually impaired Talladega man and find out why he says, "I was born with music in my blood" in a slideshow by photographer David McLain.
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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
For over 60 years the Blind Boys of Alabama have entertained audiences with their gospel music.  They met while students at the Alabama School for the Negro Blind and formed their group in 1939. (The Alabama School for the Negro Blind, established in 1892, fulling integrated into the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in 1969.)  Originally calling themselves the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, they took their show on the road. As a jab to their rivals, Mississippi's Blind Boys, the group changed their name in the late 1940s to the Blind Boys of Alabama. They began recording in 1948 after paying their dues on the road.
 
In 1988 the Blind Boys starred in the Broadway musical Gospel at Colonnus, which helped launch them onto the national scene. In the past three years they've earned two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album, were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and won the Dove Award for Higher Ground for the Best Traditional Gospel Album.  Most recently they've been seen and heard on the big screen in both the Cuba Gooding, Jr., film Fighting Temptations and Disney's Brother Bear.

—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind
www.aidb.org
Learn about AIDB's education and rehabilitation system serving children and adults who are deaf, blind, or multidisabled.
 
City of Talladega, Alabama, Official Web Site
www.talladega.com
Discover the rich heritage of this southern town from its Native American roots to its place of importance in today's motorsports.
 
A Father, a Son, and a University: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/infotogo/751.html
Thomas Gaulladet founded deaf education in the United States. Learn why he became interested in this field and how he gained his training.

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Bibliography
Couch, Robert Hill, and Jack Hawkins, Jr. Out of Silence and Darkness: The History of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Troy State University Press, 1983.

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NGS Resources
Summers, B. F. "Kids Did It!" National Geographic Kids  (May 2003), 16-17.
 
Daily, Laura. "When I was a Kid: Helen Keller." National Geographic World (June 1997), 7.

Dunn, Jerry Camarillo, Jr. "Welcome Disabled." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1987), 22.

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