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Blind Ambition

Glenmont fourth-grader competing in national Braille Challenge

Kelly Cusack is the sort of lively, just-turned-10-year-old parents can't help but be proud of. She's a Girl Scout, a member of the chess club at Slingerlands Elementary School and plays the piano. She's also an avid reader, but instead of reaching for a paperback or Kindle, she grabs her BrailleNote device.

That's because Kelly is blind. She learned to read in the same way as the rest of the children in her class, with flashcards, only her's had the tiny raised bumps of Braille on them.

Now, her hard work hitting the books is paying off. Kelly and her family will be traveling to Los Angeles soon to visit the national round of the Braille Challenge, an academic contest organized by the Braille Institute of America.

I'm a little nervous, but I know if I set my mind to it I can do it, Kelly said last week.

By the time you read this, Kelly Cusack and her family (parents Jennifer and Michael and her older brother, Carl, 14) will be on the other side of the country. The actual Braille Challenge is the weekend of June 25, but they'll be making a vacation out of it, including a stop to see family and a trip to Disneyland.

Kelly has had plenty of practice when it comes to the competition itself, having competed in the regional contest the last two years. The Braille Challenge began in 2000 as a regional contest for southern California, and since then has grown to encompass the entire U.S. and Canada. This year, 855 students participated in regional contests, an impressive number considering there are just 6,000 kids nationwide who are registered to receive educational materials in Braille.

The competition is something akin to a spelling bee or other academic contests, but the tests focus on Braille skills. The contest started as a way to make Braille a bit more interesting for students, who usually experience it through textbooks.

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