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These Fingers Walk the Bumpy Road to Stardom in Braille

Blind children from the U.S. and Canada compete in typing contests that encourage them to set their goals high.

June 29, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The room was shaking. Ten children were hammering away on their Braille typewriters and seeking glory.

The National Braille Challenge Invitational was held Saturday at the Braille Institute of America's center in Los Angeles. The 10 competitors -- all legally blind -- were part of the daylong contest to determine who had the best Braille skills in the nation in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Part of the contest was the speed and accuracy exam, in which participants listened to a story on tape and transcribed it in Braille, using a Perkins Brailler. The machines resemble low-slung typewriters and are loud, particularly when a roomful of talented children are thumping on them.

The 55 competitors in Saturday's event came from around the country and qualified for the finals by receiving high scores on Braille tests in their home states. One girl even traveled from the tiny town of St. Andrews in New Brunswick, Canada, to compete and meet a longtime Braille pen pal from Southern California.

Tiffany Kim, 17, of Oxnard was awarded a $5,000 savings bond for having the highest score of all competitors. Catalina Amezcua of Los Angeles won in the third- and fourth-grade age group.

"Having the children engage in healthy competition is really important because it prepares them for the real world," said Vicki Liske, an assistant vice president at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. "And it's important they learn Braille. Everyone needs to know how to read."

In recent years, computers and other technologies have become critical tools for the blind. Today, for example, many blind children today have "screen readers," which are computer programs that read Web sites aloud.

"I eat and sleep in front of the computer," said Lupita Martins, 16, who attends John Glenn High School in Norwalk and competed Saturday.

But Martins and other competitors said there's still no substitute for curling up with a good book -- even if it's the size of a toaster because of the elevated Braille type.

The problem is that there is a relative dearth of books in Braille because there's little incentive for publishers. For example, the Los Angeles chapter raffled off its one copy of the new "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" last week -- and that copy had only the first four chapters. A version of the first half of the book in Braille is expected to published in mid-July.

"Access to books is a real problem," said Barbara Mathews of Santa Monica, whose 9-year-old daughter, Kyra Sweeney, was competing. "With a good reader like Kyra, it's hard to keep up."

A disability to one person is often a minor annoyance to another. One point of the Braille Challenge is to remind the competitors, not so subtly, to shoot for the stars in terms of what they might achieve with their lives.

A case in point: Heather Bandy, 15, who will be attending Reseda High School this fall. She began learning Braille when she was 3 or 4 years old. "My mom tried to learn with me, but she gave up because she said I was going too fast," Heather said.

At home are several shelves filled with Braille books and although she's Mormon, Heather is working her way through the Koran because current events piqued her interest in Islam. She's considering a career as a Spanish teacher.

She is now so used to being blind, she said "that it's like nothing. I complain when my mom uses the handicapped parking."

After a pause, the teenager added: "Well, I do use it to get backstage passes at country concerts."

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