For more than a decade, shoe salesman Robert Weaver voluntarily taught blind children how to bowl, wrestle and lift weights at the nearby school for the blind.

Approaching his fifties, he added another skill: sign language. Soon he was organizing choral groups and teaching Sunday school for deaf and blind students.

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

That kind of attitude is becoming more common in this city of 15,000, which is home to the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and where 1 in 15 residents are unable to either hear or see.

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

Christa Camp, a waitress at Stampede Steakhouse and Diner, has mastered signing food lingo -- meats, salads, soups, fries, drinks -- 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 available at the school, more employers feel confident in hiring students from the institute.

Beverly Stone, who graduated from AIDB's school for the deaf in 1974, said her education gave her the confidence needed to attend a public four-year college and join Talladega's work force.

She has worked at the local First Citizens Bank for 26 years and said she has noticed her co-workers and customers are 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."

"It's starting to happen more and more," said William Ransome Gordon Jr., case manager for the deaf and hard of hearing for AIDB. "People in the community are very willing to communicate with us. I think they realize sign language will become almost a universal language."

Gordon, who is deaf, said Talladega has made "big progress" in recent years, though the town was not as enthusiastic when he arrived 24 years ago.

"Back then, people didn't communicate as much with sign language; we had communication barriers," he said. "But now, they come up to us. They know when we need help."

Much of the recent interest is because of the school offering sign language classes around town and an awareness campaign throughout the county, not only for the deaf, but also for the blind. With a combined 410 students at AIDB's deaf and blind campuses, housing students ages 3 through 21, the community has grown accustomed to young deaf or blind people socializing at its venues, driving its streets, some applying for its jobs.

Gordon said while he sees signs of progress all around him, he still worries about the world outside of 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," he said. "With closed captioning, it's like going to Florida and finding the fountain of youth. It's like finding something you lost a long time ago."

But the husband and father of two, who are also deaf, feels confident that as an increasing number of deaf and blind people enter academics and the work force, more places will adapt to accommodate them.

Weaver recalled taking dozens of trips to a Birmingham church, trying to pick up the intricacies of signing. Within a few years, he was organizing choral groups made up of deaf and blind children to sing and sign several pieces, including the Lord's Prayer and the national anthem.

He beams when he recalls the time his students sang for President Ronald Reagan at a National Prayer Breakfast.

"I think they topped out Perry Como," he said.

Weaver said learning more about communicating with the deaf and blind is crucial to improving their quality of life.

He remembered his blind students who could hear cheers at basketball games but did not 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 could not grasp the concept of God or religion until it was explained to them through sign language.

He put his communications efforts -- which encompassed more than 50 years of his life -- in perspective.

"It's been no sacrifice on my part," he said. "Some people like to fish or hunt. I like to help kids."