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Blind Ambition

"There wasn't much giving it a positive connotation, so we thought it would be interesting to create a contest to make it fun," said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge. "We're finding that we really hit on something. The kids seek more Braille, they want to learn more ... the teachers are telling us the kids are asking for more homework so they can practice their Braille."

Depending on age, students compete in up to five categories: spelling (which is unique because Braille has a lot of contractions), proofreading, reading comprehension, charts and graphs and speed and accuracy, where students listen to a passage and then must type it into Braille using a Perkins Brailler device.

These contests comprise the vital skills the blind population need to be successful, said Niebrugge.

"All of the contests are meant to reinforce core academic skills and pre-employment skills," she said. "Blind adults are underemployed, there's about a 75 percent unemployment rate ... of those who are employed, a high percentage of them are Braille readers."

Top finishers receive savings bonds.

Kelly is spending the few days before the competition brushing up on her proofreading.

"They do some Braille reversals. They sometimes try to mix you up with that," she said. "They try to find the hardest thing and try to trick you."

The competition isn't all books and Braille, though. There's a social aspect, and organizers make plenty of time for the kids to interact. Blindness is a fairly rare condition among children, and those of school age who are affected often find themselves the only blind child or one of only a few students in the district. Kelly is the only blind student at Slingerlands Elementary.

Jennifer Cusack said interacting with other parents of blind children is also " a great opportunity," since they can talk about methods to make the home more accessible to their kids, parenting strategies and other topics that are unique to their children.

She's also pleased to see Kelly excited about reading.

"We're thrilled and proud and very excited," she said. "It's nice to see her be able to compete on a level playing field."

For Kelly's part, her enthusiasm is impossible to miss. She said the Challenge has made her more interested in improving her skills with Braille.

"I don't know how they do it, they must put something in the air," she said. "For me, it's just plain exciting."

For more information on the Braille Challenge, visit brailleinstitute.org.

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