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May 9, 2004

Entering the World: Townspeople learning how to help deaf, blind

From: Winston Salem Journal, NC - May 9, 2004


For more than 10 years, shoe salesman Robert Weaver volunteered to teach blind children how to bowl, wrestle and lift weights at the nearby school for the blind.

Then, approaching his 50s, he added another skill - sign language - and organized choral groups and taught Sunday school for deaf and blind students.

"I knew fewer people could communicate with the deaf than the blind," says Weaver, now 76. "I slowly found my niche."

That kind of accommodating attitude is becoming more common in this city of 15,000, which is the home of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and where 1 in 15 residents do not hear or see.

The town square and a handful of streets have traffic signals that speak, telling blind pedestrians when it's safe to cross. Several churches offer services in sign language, and it's not unusual to find store and restaurant workers who sign.

Christa Camp, a waitress at Stampede Steakhouse and Diner, has mastered signing foods to her deaf customers.

"It makes them a lot more comfortable," Camp said. "They're in every business around here. They have to shop and eat just like we do."

Next in store for the Stampede: menus in Braille.

And thanks to college-prep and vocational programs at the state school, more employers are hiring students from the institute.

Beverly Stone, who graduated from AIDB's school for the deaf in 1974, said that her education there gave her the confidence needed to attend a public college and get a job.

She has worked at the local First Citizens Bank for 26 years and said that she has noticed her co-workers and customers trying harder to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing.

"All of them try to use sign language," she said, communicating during an interview through an interpreter. "At first I was very nervous with people, but after a while it was no problem."

William "Ran" Ransome Gordon Jr., the case manager for the deaf and hard of hearing for AIDB, said that people in Talladega have become much more willing to communicate with sign language than they were when he arrived 24 years ago.

"I think they realize sign language will become almost a universal language," he said. "Now they come up to us. They know when we need help."

With the school's 410 students at its deaf and blind campuses, housing students ages 3 through 21, the community has grown accustomed to young deaf and blind people.

But Gordon said that he worries about the world outside Talladega. He cited recent federal cuts in closed captioning for entertainment programs as an indication that people need to be more aware of disabilities.

"We don't need them to cut back on services for us," said Gordon, whose two children also are deaf. "With closed captioning, it's like ... finding something you lost a long time ago."

Weaver recalls making dozens of visits to a Birmingham church, trying to pick up the intricacies of signing. Within a few years, he was organizing choral groups of deaf and blind children to sing and sign.

He remembered blind students who could hear cheers at basketball games, but didn't know what the cheering was about until they were given a chance to experience sports by touch. Or how his deaf students could see churches and people praying, but couldn't grasp the concept of religion until it was explained to them through sign language.

Weaver said that learning about communicating with the deaf and blind is crucial to improving their quality of life. "It's been no sacrifice on my part," he said. "Some people like to fish or hunt. I like to help kids."

© 2004 Winston-Salem Journal. The Winston-Salem Journal is a Media General newspaper.