Today I am visiting the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind I’m Talladega.

I meet a lot of people.

My tour starts in preschool. I watch children, small children, with hearing loss and visual impairment, learn to speak American Sign Language. Their little hands are unsure and shaky. They are just learning the gestures. Some are shy. Others are animated and wild.

I sit in on the pre-K class American Sign Language class and learn to sign “thank you,” and “nice to meet you,” and “I really have to pee.”

I also learn how to make the ASL gesture for applause, which is like making jazz hands. I get plenty of practice at “applause.” I also learn that all kids love making the ASL sign for applause almost as much as they love, for example, candy.

Next I visit the Helen Keller School. I meet middle-school kids who are dissecting frogs in biology class.

Hell hath no greater torment than frog dissection.

“Stick around,” says the teacher. “After lunch we’re dissecting a fetal pig.”

Whereupon I learn how to sign, “fetal pig,” in ASL. Which is not nearly as fun as “applause.”

I visit the music building on campus. The building is a state-of-the-age music facility, with grand pianos galore. I meet the piano teacher. She shows me a book of braille sheet music.

I ask her if braille sheet music is more difficult than normal sheet music. Her response is to laugh at me until she his out of breath, then wipe her eyes.

I meet one pianist, a kid who is wearing sunglasses. He is playing incredibly well alongside a band of students who have hearing loss and vision impairment.

When they finish, I make the sign for applause.

The kids seem unimpressed by this. So I try the sign language gesture for “I have to pee.”

One kid furrows his brow and asks if I need to see a school nurse.

Next, I visit E. H. Gentry School, which is the part of the campus that helps older students learn employment skills, college pre classes, and independent living. Gentry has customized programs for deaf, blind, deafblind, and general-services students.

“This is where dreams come true,” says the principal, my tour guide. “This is where kids learn they can do anything they want in this life.”

And you can feel it when you walk onto the Gentry campus.

A half dozen students pass you, they have white canes, or cochlear implants. They come in every age, shape, race, and creed. And they all have a story.

“I’m blind because I was assaulted,” says one 23-year-old girl. Her ocular region is scarred. “I am working toward my college degree, and I am neither defined by my assault, nor my blindness.”

“I am blind,” says another young man in sunglasses, “but nobody can tell me that my life is over.”

“I lost my sight when I was in college,” says one young woman who has low vision. “I was studying graphics design at the time I began to have issues. I thought life was finished. But my life is not finished. Now I’m studying graphics design, and I’m about to graduate with my degree. I will not quit.”

Soon, I am walking through the school hallways where I meet a young woman who is wearing a happy-face T-shirt.

Her name is Rue. I don’t know how to spell her name, so I’m improvising here. She is mid-20s. She is small framed, and pretty. She wears a 10,000-watt smile.

Her teachers say she didn’t have that smile before she came here.

She is Deaf. Her life has been hard. Very hard. When she signs, she makes small emphatic moans, which only underline the sincerity of her words.

“I did not complete high school because some people didn’t believe I could,” she says. “But then I came here.

“Now I’m almost finished with my high-school diploma, and then I’m going to college, and then I’m going to major in photography, and then I’m going to own my own business, and then I will tell every person who said I can’t do it that I can do it. I absolutely can. Watch me.”



  1. Cathy M - May 12, 2023 12:40 pm

    Wow! What an inspiration these young people are to all who meet them and are reading your column today. We take so much for granted. Brave and courageous , they climb mountains and have goals for their future. Thank you to all who teach and guide all of these young people. Thank you, Sean for sharing with us.

  2. Dee Thompson - May 12, 2023 1:21 pm

    Beautiful column. There is always an assumption that if someone is handicapped they cannot have a full and fulfilling life. My son lost his right hand and wrist to frostbite at age 5. He works as a cook and makes more money than I did when I was his age! He also plays tennis, rock climbs, draws very well, and more. You can read about him here: https://deescribbler.typepad.com/my_weblog/2023/04/to-sleep-beneath-the-sky.html Next time you come through Atlanta I would love to introduce you to him.


Leave a Comment