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Putting Their Braille Skills to the Test

  • Published: 2010-06-21 (Revised/Updated 2010-07-13) : Author: Braille Institute
  • Synopsis: Sponsored by Braille Institute of America competition encourages blind children of all ages to fine-tune their braille skills.

Main Document

Nation's Top Blind Students To Compete In Unique Academic Competition.

It has been nearly 200 years since Louis Braille created a system of raised dot writing for blind people. Since then various forms of technology have come and gone, but those dots have remained a steadfast method of reading and comprehension for people with visual impairments. Last year marked the bicentennial of the birth of Louis Braille, and with it came a flood of questions as to the contemporary usefulness of the code that bears his name. The questions ranged from the mundane to the outrageous. 'Isn't braille an outdated method of reading? Hasn't current technology replaced the need for blind people to read with their hands? Why would someone learn to read braille when they could just use talking devices and software'

On the surface the questions may seem valid, but upon closer inspection, they don't hold up. If braille is the passport to literacy for a blind person, then abolishing its use would be akin to getting rid of the written language that sighted people use everyday. While the little braille dots are something of a novelty to the average person they glance over them as they punch in their ATM passwords and ponder their appearance in public places for thousands of blind and visually impaired children and adults who use those dots to connect themselves to the world around them, braille is their lifeline.

This underrated literacy issue is finally coming to the forefront of discussion because of a national academic competition that seeks to draw braille out of the shadows and into the public consciousness. On Saturday, June 26, 2010 not because of their blindness, but because of their ability to succeed in spite of it, the top blind students from across the United States and Canada will put their knowledge of the braille code to the test in the only national academic competition for blind students in the country The National Braille Challenge®. This year marks the 10th anniversary of this groundbreaking event.

Sponsored by Braille Institute of America®, the competition serves to encourage blind children of all ages to fine-tune their braille skills, which are essential to their success in the sighted world. The 10th Annual National Braille Challenge will take place on Saturday, June 26, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Braille Institute's headquarters, located at 741 North Vermont Avenue, in Los Angeles. The participants, ages 6 to 19, will compete in challenging categories requiring them to transcribe, type and read braille using a device called a Perkins Brailler. This year's competition will feature a diverse group of high achievers from across the country. Most were born blind, others lost their sight due to cancer or viral infections, but they all share a tenacity that drives them to succeed in spite of their disability. They were chosen from among more than 800 students throughout the country during the preliminary round. "We know that employment numbers for blind people are significantly lower than those of sighted people in the same age group," said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge . "But 90 percent of blind people who are gainfully employed are braille readers, and that's very telling. It's essential that blind children learn to read braille at an early age."

Each category of The National Braille Challenge is designed to test braille skills in several areas reading comprehension, braille spelling, chart and graph reading, proofreading and braille speed and accuracy all of which blind students need to master in order to keep up with their sighted peers. The first- through third-place winners in each age group will receive a savings bond, ranging in value from $500 for the youngest group to $5,000 for the oldest. In addition to these prizes, Freedom Scientific corporation has donated the latest adaptive equipment for the winners a pocket PC with a braille display called a PacMate.

"It always shocks me when I hear people say that braille is outdated," said Heather Antolak, whose 9-year-old daughter Kate is competing this year. "I can't imagine what Kate's life would be like if she didn't know how to read. Literacy is literacy, whether someone is reading with their eyes or their hands. We can't expect blind children to be less educated or literate than our sighted children. It's unimaginable."

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Although the stakes are high, The National Braille Challenge serves to bridge the gap between a unique group of students from across the country, and draw national attention to a topic that has been lingering in the shadows for nearly 200 years.

"We cannot afford to let braille disappear. In 200 years from now, hopefully blind children and adults will still have this form of literacy to connect them to the sighted world," said Niebrugge. "That's the great thing about the Braille Challenge, it gives us the opportunity to celebrate braille literacy in a unique way. Most of the participants are the only blind students in their school. They go through their entire lives being the exception. This competition gives them the opportunity to build camaraderie among kids who have shared similar life experiences." -


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