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December 16, 2003

Town shaped by schools for impaired

From: Philadelphia Inquirer - Dec 16, 2003

Talladega, Ala., has long been home to, and shaped by, the deaf, blind, disabled.
By Laura Sullivan

TALLADEGA, Ala. - This could be any other small town, fumbling forward through a century of economic spurts and hardships. And yet there is something different about this place, almost imperceptible at first, but there once you notice it: One in every 10 people who lives here is blind or deaf.

Largely a result of being home to one of the nation's oldest schools for the blind and deaf, Talladega has drawn people who are sight- or hearing-impaired. The more people have settled here, the more other people want to.

"People graduate and stay here, or they relocate here so their kids can go to school here," said town historian Tommy Moorehead, director of the Heritage Hall Museum.

"There's lots of employment here. People learn the lay of the land. Sometimes it's just easier to stay," he said.

The signs are subtle but everywhere: A man passes the town square, stops at the street corner and presses a button on a pole.

"You can cross Battle Street now," the pole tells him.

The menus at the McDonald's are written in braille. The sidewalks are flawlessly even. And most people - even nonimpaired people such as the teenage girl behind the pizza counter, the store manager at the local pharmacy, and the town's police officers - have an unconscious habit of signing while talking, no matter whom they are talking to.

Talladega, an American Indian word meaning border town for its once central location between two great tribes, saw its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when a new railroad brought 30 trains a day.

Businesses thrived, and the century-old plantations and manor houses built during that era still line the quiet neighborhood streets. Even then, though, the nucleus of the town was the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

Founded before the Civil War by a doctor whose younger brother was deaf, the institute has grown into one of the most renowned institutions for impaired people in the country.

The institute runs three of the town's four schools that cater to people who are deaf, blind or impaired. They are the Alabama School for the Blind, the Alabama School for the Deaf, and the Helen Keller School of Alabama for children or adults with multiple disabilities.

The institute also runs the Alabama Industries for the Blind, a $10-million-a-year enterprise that employs hundreds of deaf and blind people who make, among dozens of other items, every tie worn by a man in the four branches of the military.

But the institute also employs nonimpaired Talladega residents. More than 1,100 work at the institute or one of its many branches.

"AIDB is such a part of Talladega, you can't see one without the other," said Lisa Sams, a specialist with the Office of Institutional Advancement at the institute and a lifelong resident.

"AIDB has certainly helped the economy, we employ so many people," Sams said. "But it also keeps so many folks coming in and out of town, and a lot of time people decide to settle here. I think they find the small-Southern-town community hospitable."

Kim Casey, who manages the McDonald's and whose boyfriend is blind, said that because Talladega had always been so conscientious about meeting the needs of people, both disabled and nondisabled, it was easy for everyone to just blend together as people.

"I love it here. It's like... " she pauses, searching for a word. Her hands think of it first.

"It's too cool. It's one of a kind," she said, signing. "But you'll never hear about it."

© 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.