Three area students have proven that, despite the challenges of visual impairment, they can clearly see a bright future for themselves, as evidenced by their recent standout performances in a high-profile competition designed specifically for the visually impaired.
The Braille Challenge® is an annual event conducted in multiple sites nationwide and is open to visually impaired students throughout the U.S. and Canada. The preliminary round is open to students of all skill levels, with the top scoring 60 contestants progressing to the final round in Los Angeles in June.
This competition is not for the faint of heart, either. It involves an entire day of intense competition in various categories, including reading comprehension, braille speed and accuracy, proof reading, spelling and reading tactile charts and graphs.
This past February, Briarwood Elementary fourth grader, Audrey Bethay; Shawnee Mission South sophomore Ashley Thao; and Nativity Parish School second grader Brooke Petro all earned a first place ranking in their respective age groups and are positioned to potentially compete at the national level in June.
Even though these young girls may have certain limitations, they remain unafraid to defy those limitations and are proving daily that just because one cannot see does not mean they cannot achieve amazing things in life.
“Braille is the only way that kids who are visually impaired are going to be able to do that,” notes Brooke’s mom, Lyn Petro of Leawood.
Brooke originally participated by special invitation in the challenge while in kindergarten for the experience only and by the following year, proved her academic prowess. In 2014, she earned the highest score in the reading comprehension part of the Challenge among all 60 contestants at the 2014 National Braille Challenge, for which she was awarded the Braille Superstar Award. Additionally, she stood in the spotlight the last two years by winning first place in her age division at the Regional Braille Challenge.
Working just as diligently, Audrey has received the highest score out of all of the students competing at the Kansas Regional Challenge the last two years, something truly noteworthy considering she is only in the fourth grade.
And to understand how impressive these accomplishments are, an elementary lesson in Braille is important. Created in 1824 by 15-year-old Louis Braille, this particular style of reading and writing is less of a language than it is a code, which consists of characters represented by patterns of raised dots felt with the fingertips. There are 189 letter contractions and 76 short-form words that are used to reduce the amount of paper needed to reproduce books in Braille.
“Each page of regular print is the equivalent of three pages of Braille,” explains Petro. “It is almost like a secret code that the child has to contextually figure out.”
Petro went on to explain that speed is the most important aspect of The Braille Challenge and that Brooke currently reads approximately 112 words per minute.
“Ninety percent of what a sighted child learns is visual,” says Petro. “However, learning to spell is different for kids who are visually impaired. A sighted child can see words used in every day situations which help to reinforce the proper spelling of a word, whereas a visually impaired child cannot.”
It definitely requires a certain level of determination and perseverance to excel as a visually-impaired individual, not only in this competition, but also in every day activities.
“What is fantastic is that the girls work so hard to accomplish their goals,” says Petro. “However, what is most important to shed light on is the importance of Braille literacy, not just the competition. In fact, only 10 percent of people who are visually impaired are literate in Braille.”
Brooke, Ashley and Audrey may have certain stumbling blocks in their lives, but they do not allow themselves to trip over them. Instead, the simply turn them over into stepping stones to greater opportunities.
If any or all of the girls adoringly referred to by Petro as “The Triple Threat from Kansas,” advance to the nationals early this summer, they have their work cut out for them, but Petro emphasizes that the best part of it all has less to do with the work and more to do with the fun these young ladies have in the process and the friendships that are forged along the way.
“Brooke has had a great time these past couple of years,” adds Petro. “She has met some amazing kids and has made new friends. It also provides a great support system for us with other families of visually impaired children.”
Additionally, this challenge gives the students an extra confidence boost and the knowledge that they can succeed in life.
“These kids work so hard and really have to learn to adapt to all situations in ways that are completely different for sighted kids,” explains Petro.