The Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), headquartered in Talladega, has provided education and outreach services to people with visual and hearing impairments since 1858. The school weathered the turmoil and changes of the civil rights era and changes in education laws regarding people with disabilities. Today, the school continues to serve the needs of Alabamians through its main campus, regional centers, and technical training facilities.
The modern AIDB consists of the Alabama School for the Deaf, the Alabama School for the Blind, and the Helen Keller School, which serves children who are both deaf and blind. In addition, the E. H. Gentry Technical Facility is a training center and technical school for deaf and blind people aged 16 years and older. AIDB also offers employment opportunities to more than 300 visually impaired people through its Alabama Industries for the Blind plant in Talladega and its satellite workshop in Birmingham. Service to deaf and blind persons is also provided through nine AIDB regional centers in Birmingham, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Mobile, Dothan, Auburn, Tuscumbia, and Talladega.
Many people have helped to shape AIDB, but Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson's name is mostly closely linked to developments in the first half-century of the institute's history. Inspired to work with the deaf by his hearing-impaired brother, William Seaborn Johnson, in the mid-1850s, Johnson became a teacher at the Georgia Asylum for the Deaf in Cave Springs. In 1858, internal difficulties led Johnson to leave his post in Georgia and seek opportunities elsewhere. He corresponded with Alabama governor A. B. Moore and Superintendent of Education William Perry about the possibility of opening a school for the deaf in Alabama and was encouraged to do so.
Although his reasons for settling in Talladega remain unclear, by 1858 Johnson had purchased property from a local Methodist church as well as a former Masonic school building. He opened the doors of the Alabama School for the Deaf on October 4, 1858. In 1860, the state of Alabama purchased the campus from Johnson, but he remained as president and, despite the hardships of the post–Civil War era, added the Alabama School for the Blind in April 1867. Johnson's brother-in-law, Reuben Rogers Asbury, a former administrator at the Georgia school and a Confederate soldier who became visually impaired as a result of service, was the driving force behind the new school, lobbying the legislature for funds and serving as a teacher.
In 1870, the state legislature approved funding and a name change to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, which encompassed both the school for the deaf and the school for the blind. By this time, the combined student body was approximately 70. The teaching staff expanded to include Johnson's wife, brother, and two former students in addition to two instructors for vocational classes. In 1887, the school was split into separate institutes, with educator Josiah Graves serving as the head of the newly established Alabama Academy for the Blind and Johnson continuing as head of the Alabama School for the Deaf. In 1892, the state added the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind at a facility located nearby, with Josiah Graves serving as principal as well.
The school recruited any students who wished to attend, offering instruction in vocational activities such as farming and trades as well as more traditional classes in music, math, religion, and home economics. The school also offered students opportunities to participate in sports, such as baseball, basketball, and football. In the late 1870s, students began publishing their own newspaper, The Messenger, which continued to be published for the next 99 years.
Upon Johnson's death in 1893, his son, J. H. Johnson Jr., became the institute's second president and continued to expand the school's programs and facilities. In the 1930s, the school added a bakery, a farm, and a hospital, as well as programs for vision-impaired adults. E. A. McBride, who served as president from 1955 to 1962, oversaw much of the construction that shaped the modern AIDB main campus. One of his first acts was to oversee the opening of the Helen Keller School in 1955, which offers outreach and instruction to students who are both deaf and blind. During the 1960s, the institute increased its adult vocational programs and opened the E. H. Gentry Technical Facility, named for the president at the time. In 1981, the facility would enable student Jerry Henderson to become the first deaf and blind person in the nation to earn a general equivalency diploma.
During the civil rights era, AIDB dealt with the same issues surrounding racial desegregation as the public schools. In 1967, the school was party to a lawsuit, Christine Archie v. AIDB, that led to the desegregation of the facilities. Under the court ruling, which decided in favor of the plaintiff, AIDB was required to implement a plan for desegregation by December 1967. In July 1968, the federal government forced AIDB to integrate all of its facilities, and the Negro School for the Deaf and Blind was incorporated into the main school at this time. Additional turmoil resulted from passage of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guaranteed every disabled child a free and appropriate public education. Although generally viewed as an important advancement for the disabled community, at the time the new law created panic in residential institutions throughout the United States because many assumed that students would be transferred from residential programs such as AIDB into public schools.
During the 1980s the institute enacted numerous academic and physical-plant improvements under President Jack Hawkins Jr. who also implemented a modern fund-raising program with the creation of the AIDB Foundation. Additionally, the institute established a network of nine regional centers with a $1 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. These centers brought institute trainers and teachers closer to vision- and hearing-impaired people in need of services throughout the state. Capital campaigns brought in additional funds, and in the 1990s AIDB opened the Woods Centers of Excellence, with facilities built specifically for teaching science, mathematics, and language to children who are deaf and blind.
Athletics have also played an important role throughout AIDB's history. William Seaborn Johnson started the school's first baseball team, the Silent Warriors, in the spring of 1870. The sports programs he initiated continue to this day. AIDB athletes and teams have won national titles in football, basketball, volleyball, swimming, and many other sports.
Throughout its history, AIDB has received numerous tributes for its service to the sensory impaired. Perhaps its greatest
tribute came from one of Alabama's most famous daughters, Helen Keller: "I cannot believe parents would keep their deaf or
blind child at home to grow up in silence and darkness if they knew there was a good school in Talladega where they would
be kindly and wisely treated."
Couch, Robert Hill, and Jack Hawkins Jr. Out of Silence and Darkness: The History of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, 1858-1983. Troy, Ala.: Troy State University Press, 1983.
Jack Hawkins Jr.
Published November 18, 2008
Last updated November 30, 2011