Three days before the prom at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, I stopped by House 573, a small girls’ dormitory on the school’s campus, in Austin. Tammy Reed, House 573’s sturdy, perpetually good-natured dorm manager—beloved for, among other things, her Tuesday night American Idol viewing parties, which include running commentary and hot wings—was telling me why the prom was the most thrilling night of the year for her girls. “Blind students usually don’t get asked to the prom,” she said as we sat at the kitchen table, which had been taken over by curling irons, cans of hair spray, bobby pins, Q-tips, nail polish, and costume jewelry. “And if they go to the prom, they end up standing against the wall. Everyone comes to our prom, and there won’t be a kid there who doesn’t dance.”
The ninth-period bell had already rung, signaling that school was out for the day, and Tammy’s students, some with white canes in hand, were making their way back to House 573. “Okay, girls!” Tammy cried as they straggled in, steering them toward a large pile of hand-me-downs from past proms that she had taken out of storage. “There are plenty of dresses here to try on if you don’t have something for Saturday night. If you already know what you’re wearing, why don’t you put it on and show me?” The girls began pulling gowns from the heap, feeling the textures of the different materials, fingering hemlines, tracing the contours of each design. If they had any vision, however faint, they held the fabric directly in front of their eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of color.
“Ooh, this is pretty!”
“I wish I was skinny enough to wear this.”
“That is so ghetto.”
“This is what I’m going to wear when I see Daniel,” announced junior Marsha Duffy, emerging from her bedroom in an aquamarine cocktail dress.
“Who’s Daniel?” someone asked.
“My future boyfriend,” Marsha replied.
“I’m going to wear diamonds!” interrupted freshman Krista Akridge, her gaze fixed on the ceiling.
“Cubic zirconium,” an upperclassman corrected her.
“Lord have mercy,” said sophomore Ashley Jones as Tammy zipped her into a red satin gown. “Is this what it takes to be a girl?” She patted her stomach and frowned. “I don’t feel pretty,” she said.
Girls drifted out of their bedrooms dressed grandly, looking both lovely and awkward. Amanda Huston, a junior who is blind and deaf, was jubilant as she sat in the middle of the commotion, shrieking with delight whenever the noise level became high enough to register with her. She wore an ice-blue gown with a matching corsage of silk flowers, and her long red hair spilled onto her shoulders. The prom, Amanda told me, was her favorite night of the year. “The music is loud, and we dance all night!” she signed into her interpreter’s hand.
Kelley Zaiontz, a slight, serene junior who is visually impaired but also has a neurological disorder called cerebellar ataxia, which affects the brain’s ability to coordinate muscle movement, was wheeled by a residential instructor into the room. “Let me see your dress!” Ashley said, making her way over to Kelley so she could inspect her outfit. “Do the straps crisscross?” Ashley asked, running her fingers across the back of the garment, trying to make