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Maryland students find challenge and friendship in regional Braille competition

Alexis McPhail (left), 11 of Elkridge and Derrick Day, 12, of Finksburg are good friends who competed against one another at the 2018 Maryland Regional Braille Challenge.
Alexis McPhail (left), 11 of Elkridge and Derrick Day, 12, of Finksburg are good friends who competed against one another at the 2018 Maryland Regional Braille Challenge. (Mary McCauley / Baltimore Sun)

Jose Andre Montano is a 12-year-old Bolivian-born jazz pianist and composer. He made his debut at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2015 performing in a concert celebrating Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.

Jose also is blind and has cerebral palsy. Walking any distance tires him out, which means he often moves about in a wheelchair.

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The pre-teen spent the day Saturday in Baltimore, happily participating in a slate of activities at the Maryland School for the Blind that included polishing his writing skills in Braille and jamming with a Hawaiian band. And he’s a perfect example of what the day’s keynote speaker, Kristin Smedley, meant when she urged those gathered to “set extraordinary expectations” for blind or visually impaired children.

Smedley has two sons, aged 18 and 14, who have been blind since infancy and a daughter, 13, who is sighted.

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“I have big dreams for all of my children,” Smedley said. “The dreams I have for Michael are different than the dreams I have for Mitchell and the dreams I have for Karissa. Some of the old dreams are gone for good. But, they’ve been replaced by new dreams. They just look a little different.”

The centerpiece of Saturday’s event at the school was the 18th annual Maryland Regional Braille Challenge, in which contestants in elementary and high school compete in five categories: reading comprehension; spelling; charts and graphs; proofreading; and speed and accuracy.

Winners will compete in national finals in June at the University of Southern California.

During her address to parents, school officials and advocates, Smedley cited sobering statistics. Nearly 70 percent of blind adults are unemployed, she said. In 2014, 30.5 percent of blind adults lived below the poverty line; 31.5 percent had a high school diploma or GED, and just 14.4 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Students need to be able to read, write and proofread if they’re going to compete academically and in the workplace,” said Michael J. Bina, president of the Maryland School for the Blind. “Being literate in Braille levels the playing field.”

Alexis McPhail, 11, of Elkridge and Derrick Day, 12, of Finksburg are good friends and fierce competitors. Both have participated in the annual Braille challenge since they were in kindergarten, and over the years both have won a handful of awards.

Derrick has the edge when it comes to reading comprehension, Alexis excels at graphics, and both are fairly evenly matched at spelling. She refers to him as “the biggest pain in the neck in the world,” which makes Derrick smile.

Nineteen blind children lay in a fMRI scanner and listened to stories, music, or someone speaking a foreign language like Russian, Hebrew or Korean. As they listened to the stories, something unexpected happened – the visual cortex lit up.

“If I come in third, Alexis will usually come in second,” Derrick said, “and the other way around.”

Derrick thinks he’d like to become a computer engineer, while Alexis suspects her future may be in computer programming. Proficiency in Braille, both said, makes those plans more attainable.

“I love doing long division,” Derrick said, “and there’s no way I would have gotten as far as I have without Braille.”

While some students took part in the Braille competition, others took part in varied activities.

After a spirited round of “Simon Says” on the Braille machines led by teacher Conchita Hernandez, the class adjourned to the gym for a jam session with the musicians of the Hawai’i State Society of Washington D.C. Ukulele Hui. The children performed on seashells and coconut husks alongside the band members, who played more traditional instruments.

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For Jose, who taught himself to play the piano at age three and a half, the session was, well, child’s play.

When band leader Carol Takafuji started the session, little did she realize that the boy in the wheelchair was a ringer. But it didn’t take her long to figure out that Jose is gifted. The boy — whose keyboard skills have been described by Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette as “authoritative” — showed an instinctive feel for the beat.

After the session was over, he wheeled right up to Takafuji .

“Give me a call sometime,” he told her. “I’d like to perform with your band.”

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