- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The 2016 national Braille Challenge is not a quiet competition.

The competitors, students ranging from first to 12th grade, type out their tests on Perkins braillers - large, typewriter-like machines that allow them to put braille to paper. The machines’ loud, methodical clacking is the soundtrack of the contest.

The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2af1HbY ) reports that 15-year-old Muskogee student Richelle Zampella won second place in her age group at the contest, beating out more than 1,000 visually impaired students nationwide.

To her, the sound offers more than ambiance.

“We all test in the same room, so you can hear everybody. With the speed and accuracy (test), especially, you can hear all these braillers just flying around you, and it’s like, ‘I wonder how far everybody is?’ ” Richelle said. “I try not to think about how far everybody else is and compare it to myself, because that’ll only get me more nervous.”



Richelle competed with 49 other finalists at the challenge in June, applying braille literacy skills to a number of tests. Richelle competed in all four of the contest’s categories: speed and accuracy, charts and graphs, proofreading, and spelling, placing first in charts and graphs and second overall.

The Los Angeles contest, organized by the Braille Institute, brings blind students together to promote and add a level of competition to braille literacy, a skill that holds a sizable impact in the blind community, said Sergio Olivia, director of national programs for the Braille Institute of America.

The National Federation of the Blind reports that only 40 percent of people with visual disabilities were employed in 2014, and Olivia said 95 percent of those employed could read braille. To him, it’s vital to support the skill.

“We don’t want the (blind or visually impaired) population to have a high unemployment rate. We feel that the more we promote braille literacy and give parents and students an understanding of how critical this skill is, it’ll open up a lot of doors,” Olivia said.

To Richelle, who has been blind since birth, braille is second nature. She has been competing on and off in the regional and national Braille Challenge since first grade and has placed nationally for the past three years, said her mom, Shelia Zampella.

Though she also competes regionally at the Oklahoma School for the Blind, where she is a student, Richelle said she enjoys the challenge of the national contest.

“I’m a really competitive person, so I enjoy competition,” Richelle said. “In the national competition, I don’t know anyone I’m competing against … so it’s kind of like you don’t know where everybody is. Like, ‘Ooo, who do I need to watch out for?’ You never know.”

But the challenge is more than just a competition. It’s an annual gathering for blind students and their families, a chance for people in similar situations to meet and support each other.

“It’s very organic, the way that families come together and start really socializing,” Olivia said. “You open up and you say, ‘Oh, I had trouble with this,’ and four other parents around you will say, like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are you from? (We have) the same thing.’ “

The bonds often last past the challenge. There is a social media network for national competition alumni, and many parents and students have used it to meet up during the year, Olivia said. When a finalist from Texas struggled with leukemia, the Braille Challenge community stepped up, running a social media campaign to get him a blood transfusion.

“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people,” Sheila Zampella said. “You could tell this year it seemed like everybody was seeking out people from the year before. . It’s just wonderful seeing everybody again, because it’s just like a little reunion with everybody and the kids.”

The students keep up with each other through texting and social media, even in ways most wouldn’t expect.

“One of the things I thought when I started working here was, ‘Really? Blind people are using Instagram?’ . You describe pictures,” Olivia said. “You would be so surprised that so many of our students are so into selfies. They just ask somebody or they describe it themselves.”

Families have fun on their own as well. Many, including the Zampellas, will fan out into Los Angeles for vacations. Richelle, her parents and little sister, who is also blind, visited the Hollywood Walk of Fame, beach and Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.

“It was awesome,” Richelle said of the trip to the Wizarding World. “I had to imagine how everything looked like, but I got to feel the animals and wands and robes.”

The Braille Challenge offers skill development, community and opportunity to its students and their families, and it’s something Richelle does not take for granted.

“It’s great to meet other people with visual impairments who I otherwise wouldn’t get to meet if I wasn’t part of this competition,” Richelle said. “And then the people who run the competition. . They’re always so supportive, so encouraging. They’re just really awesome people that it’s a pleasure to get to know.”

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide