The Braille Monitor                                                                                         November, 2003

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A Town Built on Empowerment

by Laura Sullivan

From the Editor: On Sunday, September 14, 2003, the following article appeared in the Sun Journal, a section of the Baltimore Sun. It is an excellent example of the wrong-headed reporting that results when a zealous institutional public relations office gets hold of an unthinking reporter and feeds her or him a story that fits perfectly with the writer's preexisting prejudices. Such pieces cry out for rebuttal, and this one received two letters to the editor. Here are the original article and both letters sent to the paper:

 

The heavy Alabama heat hangs low over the square of this old Southern town, rising from the pavement beneath the remnants of fancy opera houses and hotels built on the back of the railroad. It 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 ten people who live 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," says 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."

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, as the man continues on without missing a beat.

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

Talladega, an Indian word meaning "border town," for its once central location between two great historic Native American tribes, saw its heyday in the late 1800's and early 1900's when a newly built railroad brought thirty trains a day to the center of town.

Business 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 little brother was deaf, the institute has grown over the past century and a half 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 who have 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 plenty of non-impaired 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," says Lisa Sams, a specialist with the Office of Institutional Advancement at the institute and a lifelong resident. "AIDB has certainly helped the [town's] economy, we employ so many people," Sams says. "But it also keeps so many folks coming in and out of town, and a lot of times people decide to settle here. I think they find the small-Southern-town community hospitable."

Despite the institute's reputation, though, little is known about Talladega outside the town limits. The reputation it has is more for being close to a NASCAR speedway than anything else.

"We're the best-kept secret," Sams says. This community "is a way of life. When you go outside to other cities, you look around and actually notice, nobody's signing here."

Along the historic town square and the newer commercial streets crowded with fast-food restaurants, the Winn-Dixie and the Piggly Wiggly, signing is everywhere, from the checkout counters to the video-rental shop, where all the movies come with optional subtitles.

Where in most towns access between strip mall parking lots is usually blocked, Talladega's strip malls have pathways linking one shopping area to the next, and any hanging branches are carefully clipped. Some blind people in Talladega are so comfortable on the streets and sidewalks that they keep their canes folded up.

Kim Casey, the manager of the local McDonald's, whose boyfriend is blind, says that because Talladega has always been so conscientious about meeting people's needs--both disabled and non-disabled--it makes it 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 says, signing. "But you'll never hear about it." She doesn't remember when exactly she learned to sign. She just always has.

For many years, town officials say, it seemed people would attend one of the schools, either moving here with their parents or staying as boarders, but then would leave after they graduated. The schools emphasize independence, even adventure, and encourage students to go out and join the world.

Back then the schools' higher education programs focused on trade skills, such as piano tuning for blind students, that could be taken anywhere. They also taught broom making, a craft that takes years to learn.

But in recent years, educated under the philosophy that they could do anything, fewer students wanted to stay around to make brooms. Those who left, having developed careers outside Talladega, didn't find much reason to come back.

The advent of computers brought another change. The institute's industries have grown and changed, bringing in millions of dollars, all of which goes to pay salaries and enhance the schools. The industry arm makes computer supplies and designs programs, jobs that many former students find rewarding and are returning to take part in.

Ray Fulghum graduated from the Alabama School for the Blind in 1956. He left Talladega to join a company that makes pianos. For thirty-seven years he lived all over the state, eventually going into business for himself.

By the early 1990's his best friend, whom he met in the school's dorm in second grade, had moved back to Talladega. Fulghum decided to return too, after landing a job with one of the institute's industries.

"I ventured out, I did my thing," Fulghum says. "But sometimes there's something to be said about being in a place where everyone is just like you."

Fulghum has been around blind people his whole life. Both his parents, who also went to the school here, were blind, and so are his son and a granddaughter, all stricken by congenital cataracts. His great-nephew, though, born with the same problem, has some sight, thanks to advances in medical technology that have corrected the cataracts.

"It's hard out there to get people to accept people with disabilities," Fulghum says. "You get tired of being stereotyped, of people thinking you're drunk.

"People here, they're used to it," he says. "They don't think anything about blind people walking around town. Everybody intermingles here, and life just goes on."

There you have the article. Here is the letter from Michael Jones, president of the NFB of Alabama and a past employee of the institute:

September 15, 2003

Dear Sun Editor:

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Please allow me to comment on the Sunday Sun's article regarding "A Town Built on Empowerment." I was a resident of this community for more than four years, and "empowerment" would be the last word that would come to my mind in describing Talladega. I was shocked by the shameless promotion in which your reporter engaged with apparently very little research. Reading this article, one is led to believe that Talladega is a forward thinking and technically progressive community, at least for people with disabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I found the town to be extremely backward in attitudes about the capabilities of people who are blind or disabled. Consider for example a visit that I made to a doctor's office. The personnel in that office were extremely nervous and uncomfortable in their dealings with me. They continually asked me if anyone was with me. Of course no one was since I am quite capable of traveling independently, but this information seemed to unnerve them. I asked one person if she was used to interacting with blind people, and her response was shocking, especially for a town that is supposed to be so progressive. She said, "We are used to you people being brought over by an instructor, not coming alone."

Mr. Moorehead, director of the Heritage Hall Museum of the City of Talladega, brags that people move to Talladega for employment. One wonders where he arrives at such information when the unemployment rate for Talladega is 9.3 percent, a figure almost twice the state average. One also finds it hard to believe that blind and deaf people find the industries for the blind a great employment bonanza, considering that the average wage for a blind worker is a paltry $5.91 per hour.

Lest one think that blind people are getting their fair share from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind employment opportunity, one might (and your reporter should) consider further that not one blind person out of the reported 1,100 employees of the institute is employed in an administrative or managerial job. That means that not one blind person is empowered with the authority to make decisions at the institute. Furthermore, blind people are empowered with a full 1 percent of the workforce beyond that of production workers at the institute in Talladega.

Now the institute is not alone in its lack of employment of blind people. The local city and county governments have empowered blind people with jobs in their structure at a rate of 0 percent. It is a pity that your reporter could not have opened her eyes to see beyond the rose-colored veil that was pulled over them. I wonder if she asked any of the merchants if they empowered blind people with a job in their businesses.

Empowerment is not, as Talladega would have one believe, red lights that make noise, smooth sidewalks, or smiling faces. It is dignity one achieves by self-confidence gained by belief in one's abilities and competent training. Blind people who think of themselves as appearing drunk are not examples of empowerment, nor are they examples of the type of quality training that one would expect to come from an institute that trains blind people to live in the world. However, poor training standards at the Talladega-based institute are the norm rather than the exception. Consider for example this past year's high school graduation class from the school for the deaf, where only one student out of twenty-eight earned a regular Alabama high school diploma. Also consider that fewer than 10 percent of the school for the blind's graduates ever finish college.

Talladega brags about being the best-kept secret. There is a reason for the town of 15,000 being unknown: it needs to be.

J. Michael Jones, President
National Federation of the Blind of Alabama

Now here is the letter NFB President Marc Maurer wrote:

September 17, 2003


Dear Sun Editor:
Marc Maurer
Marc Maurer

I am writing in response to the Sunday Sun's article titled, "A Town Built on Empowerment." As president of the National Federation of the Blind, a 50,000-member consumer and advocacy organization of blind people, located in Baltimore since 1978, I am disturbed by the implications of this article and especially the incongruity of the story with its title. Where is the empowerment if one's world is redesigned to meet every possible obstacle--a busy street, an uneven sidewalk, or a hanging branch? Where is the empowerment when the aspects of everyday walking are so altered, no matter the well-intended reasons?

I don't doubt that living in Talladega is pleasant. It is a town that takes special care to protect the blind from inconvenience or perceived harm and has a citizenry with a sensitivity and awareness of the concerns of disabled people (Braille menus are welcomed by the blind in any restaurant). But isn't there an implication in the article that living in any other city, Baltimore for example, or New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, would be too difficult or scary for a blind person?

We at the National Federation of the Blind believe that it is impractical and unrealistic to expect major changes in the world in order to be able to live in and enjoy it. And we want to be able to live where we need or want to be. Therefore our advocacy is for more and better mobility training (training that will provide the strategies needed to cross busy streets, to check for hanging branches or uneven sidewalks) and, of course, for more information in Braille. As a blind man I have learned the techniques of travel, and most street crossings (other than ones so dangerous we might all wish for some assistance) will not benefit from audible traffic signals. But I can't read print, access the flat-screen ATM, or surf Web sites not compatible with speech output devices. These are the barriers to education and jobs for which I will require modification.

The National Federation of the Blind has for more than sixty years understood what is really needed to improve the lives of the blind, and its members have been dedicated in meeting the challenge to provide what is needed. In January 2004 the NFB will open its Research and Training Institute in south Federal Hill. The Institute will conduct research into the most effective methods for teaching our children Braille, the technologies needed to improve nonvisual access, and the strategies needed to allow our senior blind to continue living independent lives. The Institute will develop, evaluate, and implement programs to increase employment opportunities for the blind. Provide us the training that prepares us for the opportunities in education and employment, and we will go about our lives very much like everyone else.

Cordially,

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind

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