In the United States, there are over 60,000 legally blind young people who are in Elementary or High School. However, only around 8.65% of them read braille. The Braille Institute in Los Angeles tries to encourage and motivate students to learn braille by hosting an academic competition for students across the country and Canada. Recently The Colorado Center for the Blind, in conjunction with The Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, hosted the state level competition just outside of Denver where over a dozen young people from the Denver Metro area, ranging from Kindergarten to High School typed furiously on braille typewriters, also known as Braillers.
KGNU’s Julia Caulfield reports that the annual competition tests blind and visually impaired young people in different braille subjects, from spelling to speed and accuracy, to chart and graph reading.
Logan Galloway is in Kindergarten and competing in the Braille Challenge for the first time. His mother, Allison Galloway says that he was diagnosed a few years ago with a retinal degenerative disease. “So he will slowly lose his vision over time, as he ages. So at his school, we’re blessed to have a great school district, that has offered him a TVI—a teacher of the visually impaired—and she’s been working with him every day at school to teach him Braille, and cane training so that he’s prepared for the future.”
Galloway adds that events like the Braille Challenge are important because it allows Logan to connect with other visually impaired and blind students. Logan, on the other hand, liked being there for a different reason… “Getting out of school early.”
Julie Dedon, the Executive Director of the Colorado Center for the Blind says she wants young people to be excited about learning, reading, and writing in braille. “There’s nothing better than getting all kinds of blind kids together who have the commonality of being blind and who also have the commonality of reading Braille. It’s so much fun! There’s so much excitement and energy around it all because they feel like it is really respectable to be a blind person, that they are competent, they’re like other kids…”
Dedon says that with the increase of audio information, it’s easier for people to not learn braille, but if they don’t it’s equal to a sighted person being illiterate. She adds that around 80% of visually impaired people are unemployed. However of those who are employed around 80% of them are braille readers. As such, she says learning braille is invaluable for blind people who want to be in the workforce.
However, Dedon says accessibility to braille text also makes it harder for people to learn and practice braille. She points to the example of Gone with the Wind. Because braille takes more space than print, Dedon says a copy of the book is thirteen volumes, each one the size of a phone-book.
In addition, Brent Batron, Director of Youth Programs and Assistant Director of Colorado Center for the Blind, says copyright laws often mean new books aren’t allowed to be translated into braille. He says there are machines that can translate eBooks into braille as you read, but copyright laws mean that if a blind person wants to read these books, they are forced to listen as an audio-book instead of reading in braille.
Batron says that with the rise of technology that provides auditory information, some people don’t think braille is as important to learn. “People think that braille is a little bit outdated, which is not the case. If you don’t know braille, or you don’t know print then it’s hard to spell words, it’s hard to construct sentences…. And without being able to do that, you’re missing a huge outlet. And being able to write, you know…we’re able to compete on the same terms of equality, if we’re able to create a document or a few sentences even. You know, some of these young kids, that’s what they’re doing. A few sentences, string them together. And then they have a better chance to be successful.”
Braille is comprised of six dots, in two parallel rows of three. Using a Brailler, or a small device called a Slate and Stylus, to punch different configurations of holes in a paper, you can type any letter of the alphabet. There are also characters to distinguish if a word is supposed to be in bold or italics.
The students are divided into five levels based on their grade. If they do well enough in their group, they might have the opportunity to progress onto the national competition.
Johnnie-Jean Duran is in the eleventh grade, and has been studying braille since she was three. While she would love to make it to nationals this year, Duran says a big part of the competition for her is getting to be with other students who read braille.
“I really just enjoy hearing about different students. I’ve worked with a lot of the Apprentice students before, and I’ve taught a lot of them braille. So I enjoy getting to see some of them win, and just to see them grow as braille writers in this competition.”
In June, the National Braille Institute in Los Angeles will host the National Braille Challenge where the top 50 students from across the United States and Canada will compete.