North America Braille Challengers Face Off Remotely Due to COVID on Competition’s 20th Year

August 8, 2020 Updated: August 10, 2020

Contestants of the North America Braille Challenge are no strangers to adversity, so when the 2020 edition had to go online due to the pandemic, they weren’t fazed.

The Braille Institute in Los Angeles hosted the competition, and it was conducted remotely with the most skilled 50 K-12 contestants from all over the United States and Canada facing off online. They tried their skills in various categories of braille literacy, from spelling to speed, as well as tactile charts and graphs.

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It was a particularly special year, as the competition—the only one of its kind in the world—celebrated its 20th year. Their slogan represents the spirit displayed by the contestants in these trying times: “Keep Calm and Braille On.”

While students would normally travel to Los Angeles for the Challenge, health and safety measures posed by the pandemic led the Braille Institute to hold a distance event. “Braille Institute staff will coordinate a privately proctored test which will then be sent back to Braille Institute for scoring,” the Braille Challenge website explained.

One of the newcomers to the competition, 14-year-old Madeline Mau of Princeton, New Jersey, was surprised to find that she had won in her Junior Varsity category. She told Central Jersey: “The difficulty of the sections varies. Some of them are easy enough for me such as reading comprehension and even the section where you have to analyze charts and graphs, but there are sections that were really hard.”

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Madeline’s mom, Hairong Yu explained that her daughter “has been using Braille since preschool, but we had no idea on the national scale where she compared to other students who use Braille.” The competition offered Madeline and others who face visual impairment a chance to shine on the national stage.

For Madeline and many other visually impaired children, getting the same educational opportunities as other classmates can be a struggle. Madeline’s father, Siun-Chuon Mau told Central Jersey: “All her school material is translated into Braille for her to consume including textbooks and homework assignments.”

He adds: “Most of her teachers are doing strong work for her, but self-advocacy plays an important role.”

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Ten-year-old Shianne Ramsey of Jefferson City, Missouri, also rose to the challenge and won the Freshman Category. She told KRCG that the test “was pretty suspenseful.” Shianne explained her taste for competition helped propel her to victory under time pressure. “I am very competitive sometimes. Ask my dad, we play Uno together,” she joked.

Shianne was born blind, but she never allowed her visual impairment to slow her down at school. “She’s always read above her grade level, and very advanced for her age,” said her mom, Sierra Vinyard.

Just like Shianne’s fellow competitors in the Braille Challenge, she emphasizes that she’s a normal kid. “I like to watch videos, I like to play with my dolls, I love swimming, whenever I can do it,” she said.

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Despite not being able to gather in the Southern California metropolis, the excitement was conveyed via the virtual world. “Finalists will also receive many of the same items awarded in previous years such as Braille Challenge finalist trophies, medals, a swag bag, tactile portrait, a braille yearbook highlighting each Finalist, cash and product prizes, gift certificates, official recognition from Braille Institute, and remote viewing of the closing ceremony,” the Institute explained on its website.

Unfortunately, braille literacy rates have declined as new technologies like screen readers make it possible for visually impaired persons to access internet content through listening rather than reading.

However, events like the North American Braille Challenge, which draws 10,000 competitors each year, are helping train the next generation of braille readers and bringing awareness to the importance of reading for scholastic and professional success.

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