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Demonstrating Just the Right Touch

Blind students show their skills at national literacy competition in L.A.

June 27, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff writer

Ten-year-old Kyra Sweeney likes to read under the covers at night, and there's not much her parents can do about it. Born blind, she uses Braille to read her favorite stories with her fingers -- so the lack of a flashlight doesn't matter to her.

Her voracious appetite for books is part of what helped the Santa Monica elementary school student qualify for the fourth annual National Braille Challenge Invitational, a literacy competition held Saturday at the National Braille Institute of Los Angeles.

After winning statewide competitions that tested their spelling, reading comprehension and proofreading ability, about 60 students in five age groups from around the U.S. and Canada competed Saturday for scholarships and the latest in Braille-technology devices.

The National Braille Institute regards the competition as a way to promote the importance of knowing the symbols that represent written English and to motivate children to improve their reading ability. The students were tested on their ability to type, transcribe and read Braille using a Perkins Brailler, a typewriting device for the blind.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Braille competition -- An article in Sunday's California section misidentified the Braille Institute of America, which sponsored the National Braille Challenge, as the National Braille Institute. The article also said winners received, among other items, $500 and $1,000 scholarships. They received $1,000 and $5,000 savings bonds.

"For a blind or visually impaired child not to know how to read Braille is like a sighted person not being able to read," said Vicki Liske, the event's coordinator.

There are about 57,000 visually impaired and blind children in the United States. Of those, only 5,322 read Braille, according to the National Braille Institute. Only 32% of blind adults have jobs, but of those, almost all can read Braille, according to the institute.

For Kyra and her mother, Barbara Mathews, the competition is a motivational opportunity, but they're more excited about the chance to meet other families facing similar challenges.

"These are all smart children who happen to be blind," said Mathews. "I can talk to other parents and learn what they're doing for their kids."

Kyra, competing for the third time, has made friends from around the country and keeps in touch with them over the phone. "We can all talk about the same things because we're all blind," she said.

For part of the day, the students were busy clicking away on their Perkins Braillers. They were transcribing stories they'd heard on headphones into Braille, and would be judged according to speed and accuracy.

"Look at their fingers move; it's just amazing. Those things are smoking," said Torcuato Diaz, watching his daughter, Amelia Diaz, 16, compete. He described her as just an ordinary Anaheim High School student who loves singing, practicing her French and going to the mall.

Amelia has been blind since birth, and though she attends mainstream classes, she is appreciative that she can show off her Braille skills. "There aren't really any other academic competitions for just blind kids," she said.

Though the National Braille Institute provides lodging, some parents involved the whole community so their children could participate. Rachel and William Schlichting, from a small town in Missouri, had "bake sale after bake sale" to raise enough money for their daughter, Kelcey, 7.

They watched her read sheets of dots in a speed-reading contest, saying they were honored their child could represent her state. "It's just been amazing to connect with all these parents and give our daughter a chance to do this," said Rachel Schlichting.

Winners of a $1,000 scholarship and a portable Braille note-taker in the apprentice, freshman, sophomore and junior varsity categories were Joy Hu, 9, of Vienna, Va.; Marisa Parker, 10, of Mattapoisett, Mass.; Sarah Wiles, 11, of Longmeadow, Mass.; and Claire Stanley, 16, of Mission Viejo.

In the top age division, a $500 scholarship and a PacMate -- a pocket PC with a Braille display -- went to Christine Parsons, 16, of House Springs, Mo.

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