It has been nearly 200 years since Louis Braille created a system of raised dot writing for blind people. Many people see the little dots as something of a novelty.
But for thousands of blind and visually impaired children who use those dots to connect themselves to the darkened world around them, braille is their passport to success.
This underrated literacy issue is finally coming to the forefront of discussion because of an academic competition that seeks to draw braille out of the shadows and into the public consciousness.
On Saturday, June 25, blind students from across the United States and Canada came to Los Angeles to put their knowledge of the braille code to the test in the national academic competition for blind students —The National Braille Challenge. This year marks the 11th anniversary of this 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 event took place at Braille Institute’s headquarters, located at 741 North Vermont Avenue, in Los Angeles. The participants, ages 6 to 19, competed in challenging categories requiring them to transcribe, type and read braille using a device called a Perkins Brailler.
This year’s competition featured 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 900 students during the preliminary round at Regional Braille Challenge events across the country.
“The great thing about The Braille Challenge is that it gives us the opportunity to celebrate braille literacy and bring this issue to the attention of the public,” said Nancy Niebrugge, director of The Braille Challenge.
“Most of the participants who make it to the national competition 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.”
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 received 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 donated the latest adaptive equipment for the winners—a pocket PC with a braille display called a PacMate.