Blind youth compete in National Braille Challenge

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This past weekend, kids from around the country gathered in Los Angeles to compete and show off their reading and writing skills – in Braille. It’s like a Spelling Bee, but for kids who are blind.

Photos by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sixty kids, from first graders through high school seniors, come to the Braille Institute of America to compete in five contests – spelling, reading comprehension, proofreading, Braille speed and accuracy, and chart and graph reading. The prizes range from $500 to $5,000 for the older kids.

“Blind adults are underemployed,” explained Nancy Niebrugge, director of the National Braille Challenge. “And those that do gain employment tend to know their Braille skills. They have the means to compete in the sighted world.”

Les Stocker, president of the Braille Institute, says there are those who think Braille won’t survive the digital age. But, “Braille is the portal to technology for blind children,” Stocker said. The nearly-two-hundred year old system of raised-dot reading is just as important for blind kids to learn as reading is for kids who can see, he said.

In one of the classrooms, kids prepare to type and read Braille at breakneck speed. Each student has a digital audio player and a Braille typewriter, called a Perkins Brailler. The students have 50 minutes to listen to passages and transcribe them. But they lose points for mistakes.

Kyra Sweeney is 18, and goes to a mainstream school for sighted kids in Santa Monica, Calif. And she says her blindness hasn’t held her back at all. “The worst part about being blind is how people perceive it,” Sweeney said. “They think blindness is a tragedy, and they should feel sorry for blind people, or they’re just intimidated by it. But I find if you talk to people and get to know them, and show them that you have more characteristics than just blindness, then they can get over that.”

This is Sweeney’s twelfth time at the competition. Yes, she’s gone every year since the Braille Challenge began. She’s going to Pomona College in the fall, and after that, she’s thinking about going to law school. She’ll be in classrooms with sighted kids – but she’s been doing that her whole life.