by Avishay Artsy

The USC Trojan marching band ushered a group of 60 kids into an auditorium at the Braille Institute. The kids lined up according to their age levels, from first graders through high school seniors. Volunteers helped guide them to their seats.

These kids came from all over, 42 states. They made the cut after regional events that drew about 900 contestants. They were there to compete in five contests – spelling, reading comprehension, proofreading, Braille speed and accuracy and chart and graph reading. The prizes range from $500 to $5,000 dollars.

“Blind adults are underemployed,” Nancy Neebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge said. “And those that do gain employment tend to know their Braille skills.  They have the means to compete in the sighted world.” 

Les Stocker is President of the Braille Institute of America. He said there are those who think Braille won’t survive the digital age. But he said the 200-year-old system of raised dot reading is just as important for blind kids to learn as reading is for kids who can see.

“Braille is the portal to technology for blind children,” Stocker said. If they don’t learn their Braille, they’re not going to be able to use technology any more than a sighted child, or you or I, are going to be able to use technology if we are not literate.”

In one of the classrooms, kids prepared to type and read Braille at breakneck speed. Each student had a digital audio player and a Braille typewriter, called a Perkins Brailler.

Neebrugge explained the rules. “The kids type in Braille as they’re listening to a passage,” she said. “So they type the passage as fast as they can but as accurately as they can. And they earn points for the more words they Braille, but they lose points if they make any mistakes.”

Outside the classrooms, parents milled around. Wind chimes in the hallways provided auditory cues to help guide the blind through the complex.

These parents have built friendships over the years. Rasa Vasiliauskas of Manhattan Beach, Calif. was there with her 15-year-old son Vejas. She was glad to be reunited with Jean Bening of Arlington, Minn., here with her 18-year-old daughter Megan.

“You meet other parents and you network with other parents,” Vasiliauskas said. “It’s fun meeting all the different families and reconnecting each year.”

“It’s kind of like they’re all our children,” Bening said. “Their success is our success, because the more society views the blind just doing regular things, they are regular, they just do things differently.”

As the kids come out of the classrooms, they’re eager to tell their parents about their day. Kayleigh Brendle is nine and from Freehold, N.J. “Some of the mistakes I didn’t get, and some of the paragraphs were hard,” she said.

After getting through The Babysitters Club, she’s now tackling Harry Potter, and plans to read The Hunger Games series next. She also loves to sing.

Megan Bening and her friend Rima Kadora, from Calgary, Alberta, said that while most of their friends are blind, it’s important to go beyond that world.

“I think you have to try to think outside the box, and not just be friends with people because you’re blind and they’re blind,” Bening said. “I mean, you either have more common interests than that or you don’t.”

Kyra Sweeney knows all about that. She’s 18 and goes to a mainstream school for sighted kids in Santa Monica, Calif. And she said her blindness hasn’t held her back at all.

“I think the worst part about being blind is just how people perceive it,” Sweeney said. “They think that blindness is a tragedy, and that they should feel sorry for blind people, or they’re just intimidated by it, but I find if you talk to people and get to know them and show them that you have more characteristics than just blindness, then they can get over that.”

This was Kyra’s 12th time at the competition. Yes, she’s gone every year since the Braille Challenge began. She’s going to Pomona College in the fall. After that, she’s thinking about going to law school. She’ll be with in classrooms with sighted kids, but she’s been doing that her whole life.