By Randi Belisomo
(Reuters Health) - More than a thousand visually impaired students are receiving the rare opportunity for head-to-head competition against their peers as the Braille Challenge begins across the U.S. and Canada.
"For children with any disability, typically less is expected of them," said Nancy Niebrugge of the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, California. "We are trying to fight that with the challenge."
Forty regional events will take place in January, February and March as blind students in first through twelfth grades test skills in five categories: spelling, proof reading, speed and accuracy, charts and graphs and reading comprehension. Sixty qualifying finalists, twelve from each of five age groups, will receive invitations to the Braille Challenge Finals in June at the Braille Institute.
"These students are given a lot of accommodations," Niebrugge said. "Everything they do is an accommodated version of a sighted activity, but the Braille Challenge is in their native medium"
According to the American Printing House for the Blind, there are more than 60 thousand legally blind students in the U.S. Only about five thousand read braille, a written language in which characters are represented by raised dot patterns.
The Braille Institute organized the first Braille Challenge fifteen years ago in an attempt to reverse the falling braille literacy rate. As blind students were moved from specialized schools to mainstream public schools after passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, access to braille education became limited. Literacy rates have suffered since. In 1960, 50 percent of legally blind school-age children were able to read braille. Today, that's down to 8.5 percent.
"Braille is a blind student's alphabet," Niebrugge said. "They can't take notes, they can't process their own information without it."
Many blind students in public schools rely on audio books for instruction, but as Niebrugge explained, it is difficult - if not impossible - to do algebra equations in one's head while listening to a recording of a math lesson.
The Braille Challenge gauges not only competence in reading, but also in writing. Braille can be written with a Perkins Brailler- a typewriter- or an electronic brailler.
The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts will host about 30 participants for the New England Regional competition in March. In February, the facility will host a "braille brush-up day" for students to practice with puzzles, brainteasers, tactile graphics and speed drills.
"They come because it is a social event," said Karen Ross, Director of Education Services at the Carroll Center. "It encourages new friendships between students and makes them better students."
Braille literacy, Ross said, is crucial for academic and professional success. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, 75 percent of visually impaired adults are unemployed. Close to 99 percent of those who are employed are braille readers.
Tiffany Zhao, an 18 year-old University of California-Berkeley freshman, competed in the Braille Challenge for twelve years. "I wanted to meet others like me, other visually impaired students that knew what they were doing in the braille department," Zhao said.
She won the competition three times; among the prizes she received was a braille and speech computer. Zhao now uses the prize daily to translate her college textbooks into braille.
Zhao said the time pressures of the Braille Challenge helped her to prepare for the rigor of university studies. "You are trying to type as quickly and as accurately as you can," she said.
The charts and graphs test was the most difficult for the Arcadia, California native. She lost her vision as a toddler due to retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer.
Zhao's mother, Yali Li, first entered her in the contest in order to meet students living with a similar disability. "It was good for her to know that she had other similar friends around," Li said.
Zhao maintains those friendships today, through social media platforms like Facebook. But when contest timers begin, organizers say the atmosphere of the Braille Challenge is as competitive as any youth sporting event.
"Part of the culture of the Braille Challenge is that we want to set high expectations for these students," Ross said. "It's hard on purpose."
For more information about the Braille Challenge and regional sites: brailleinstitute.org.