For Sarah Brazer, a 9-year-old Balboa Island girl, the idea of being part of the only academic competition in the country for the blind is a validation of who she is.
She said being selected for today's first national Braille Challenge in San Diego is a relief from the isolation she sometimes feels at school. She's one of five visually impaired students in her school. Only one of her teachers knows how to read Braille.
"It [the competition] is special because it is just for [people like] me," said Sarah, who attends Killybrook Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
The contest, put on by the Los Angeles based-Braille Institute, will include four events that measure Braille reading speed and accuracy, proofreading, chart and graph reading, and reading comprehension. Competitors are divided into five age groups. Braille is a reading and writing method that breaks language into a code of raised dots.
The 20 students selected had to place first or second in regional rounds of the competition.
The competition, held at the Braille Institute's San Diego office, is the only one in the nation designed to test the academic skill of visually impaired or blind youths, experts said.
One of the reasons the competition is rare is because the use of Braille is rapidly declining, due in part to the advent of speech-recognition software for computers, books on audiotape, and even talking ATMs. The trend alarms Braille advocates, who say the only way for blind people to get jobs and lead successful professional lives is to be skillful with Braille.
The competition, which will pit the 20 students against each other--10 from Southern California and 10 from Boston--is a way to motivate blind students who often can be discouraged in schools that have limited resources for the blind, organizers said.
"Competition is good. This offers a goal [for the visually impaired]," said Victoria Liske, assistant vice president of programs and services for the Braille Institute. "Being able to read is essential to one's self-esteem. And reading is a cognitive process; that makes it important in every cognitive thing we do. It is essential to getting a job someday. Knowing Braille is a key to the quality of life for the visually impaired."
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, about 70% of blind or visually impaired people are unemployed. Of the 30% who do have jobs, roughly 90% know Braille.
Gary Mudd, vice president for public affairs for the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky., is dismayed by the decline in Braille literacy, saying Braille usage has dropped from about 53% in 1963 to just above 10% today.
"It is natural to move away from Braille," he said. "I'm not saying that is good. I'm blind. But I primarily use my computer with its . . . software. I know Braille, of course. But I don't use it primarily, sad to say. But without Braille, you just cannot succeed. You need to be literate. Without it, you are illiterate."
Some disagree, saying new technology has made blind people more employable and, in a sense, more literate.
Mike Ching, an Irvine resident who is blind and graduated from Stanford University, said he stopped sending resumes in Braille to prospective employers because he felt it inhibited his chances of finding work.
"They would see it and I would get the feeling they thought about all the work I would be for them," said Ching, 26, who works for IBM. "With technology, I can work more efficiently. I use Braille, but I think it is mostly important for a sense of self-esteem for people."
Braille advocates say one of the benefits of learning Braille is building self-esteem.
The San Diego competition is part of a five-year Braille Institute push to increase reading literacy among blind and visually impaired people.
In California, about 21% of visually impaired schoolchildren capable of learning to read used Braille as their primary reading method, according to 1998 figures. In Los Angeles County, the figure was 35%, and in Orange County it was 20%. The state no longer tracks those statistics.
Lupita Martins, 14, of Hawaiian Gardens also was selected for the competition.
She said she has been discouraged by the general lack of attention she's gotten in school.
She studies at the Braille Institute's Orange County Center in Anaheim and also attends Los Alisos Junior High.
"Since the second grade, I had to teach myself Braille. I know I am going to win this competition. But I know I am going to win it because I taught myself. That's why I think this competition is important. I think it is a chance to do something with what I know how to do," she said.
"But I hope it makes people more aware. I have two glass eyes, . . . but I can see we need to be more aware about reading. I know I would be in trouble if I didn't have . . . the skill."
Competition winners will be awarded savings bonds and plexiglass trophies engraved with stars that visually impaired youngsters can recognize by touch.