Nov 06 2008

Institute for Deaf and Blind celebrates 150 years Tuscaloosa center holds reception for new facility

By Jason Morton

Desmond Williams is blind. He’s endured 16 surgeries to repair a host of problems, including the separation of both retinas, a hernia and now a shunt in his skull to facilitate the draining of fluid.

Desmond is 18 months old.

His mother, 24-year-old Kimberly Williams of Tuscaloosa, stood before about 200 people at the Tuscaloosa Regional Center for the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and spoke of workers at the center who helped the single mother learn how to cope with and help her son, who was born almost four months premature.

“He’s made such wonderful progress,” Williams said. “And he’s such a happy baby. He’s completely oblivious to all he’s been through.

“Had it not been for [AIDB], I would not have known where to start or where to go. They taught me that I’m his best teacher, and they work with me — they don’t do the work for me.”

Williams, who works as a cashier at Books-A-Million on Skyland Boulevard, was one of several speakers — including U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis — who commemorated the ceremonial grand opening of the Tuscaloosa center’s new $2 million facility. About $400,000 of the total came from a federal appropriation secured by Shelby.

The ceremony also marked the end of a nine-month celebration of AIDB’s 150th anniversary.

Lynne Hanner, director of the AIDB Foundation, and Rose Myers, a former reporter for The Birmingham News who covered the organization, describe the institution’s 1858 beginnings in the recently published book, “The Ties that Bind: A Collection of Historical Remembrances of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.” The book tells the story of Joseph Henry Johnson, who started the institute to help his brother, William Seaborn, who was born deaf and blind.

Seaborn completed his education at the institute, which started in an abandoned school in Talladega, and returned to it in 1870 to begin a 43-year career as an educator, the book said.

“Seaborn ... created a legacy that still celebrates the individual and collective accomplishments of children and adults who are deaf and blind,” wrote Hanner and Myers. “During the past century and a half, AIDB has spread across five campuses in Talladega and into all 67 counties of the state through a network of Regional Centers.”

The Tuscaloosa center serves 11 counties in West Alabama. Jan McGee, who directs the local center, calls it the Black Belt Regional Center.

“The Black Belt counties are truly God’s country,” McGee said. “AIDB has not just been a job for me. It’s been a part of my life and a part of my family’s life.”

Dr. Terry Graham, president of the AIDB, praised McGee and the work of the center, which is part of a statewide network that served 13,716 children, adults and seniors last year.

“She has made a difference in the lives of a lot of people,” Graham said.

Shelby was presented with a framed plaque of artwork from AIDB art students. He said he would hang it on his office wall in Washington, D.C., to “remind me not to forget the people who we really need to help.”

Davis, who received a similar plaque, told of attending a commencement ceremony for the AIDB in Talledega about 18 months ago. He said the students’ pride as they walked in one-by-one, some of them suffering from severe physical impairments, still moves him to this day.

“They inspired me,” Davis said, “for the rest of my life.”