Chris Nusbaum of Taneytown said that he and other blind students don't always readily take to learning Braille. His first few years with the touch-sensitive writing system meant being pulled from regular classes at Running Meade Elementary School to practice. No fun, he said.
Then Nusbaum took part in the Braille Challenge, a national academic competition for students ages 6 through 19. The meet that tests students in such areas as reading comprehension and graph reading not only fueled Nusbaum's competitiveness but it allied him with other blind and visually impaired students,
"I found that they were blind kids just like me that I can bond with and who loved Braille, and we can have fun while still cultivating those Braille skills," said Nusbaum, 16, who on Saturday took part in the regional round of the Braille Challenge, which was held at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore.
Sponsored by the school and the state Department of Education, the challenge pits students in test competitions that require them to read Braille and type into a Braille device.
The competition was created by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute of America, whose officials say it's the only academic competition for blind students in the U.S. The institute developed the competition 15 years ago to encourage blind children of all ages to fine-tune their Braille skills. More than 1,000 students participated last year, officials said.
Winners of the regional meet head to the national Braille Challenge, which is slated for June at the institute headquarters. Only 60 students advance to the national challenge annually.
Nusbaum has reached the finals each year from 2007 to 2010 and finished as high as third place in 2009.
"As a blind person, I know how important Braille is in my life," said Nusbaum, who said he would like to some day become a teacher for the visually impaired. "Braille is really what I use to access the outside world, what I use to access my classroom material, read books and communicate with my friends through texting and email."
Jacqueline Otwell, an educational consultant for outreach service for the Maryland School for the Blind and coordinator for the Braille Challenge, said many students come from traditional schools.
"They don't have opportunities to sit next to two students that can read and write Braille," she said. "It's great friendship building."
School for the Blind officials said the regional event draws students from as far away as West Virginia.
Students said that while the meet offers a chance to forge ties and make friends, it is also quite competitive. Winners get prizes of cash and state-of-the-art technology.
"It can be a little nerve-racking, but otherwise it's really fun when you have the skill of Braille and can do your best to compete in the challenge," said Julia Stockburger of Perry Hall, who has attended the national competition in each of the past three years.
"I learned that when you try your best you can achieve great things," added Julia, who is 9.
Much of that achievement has come with the advent of new technology, said Michael Bina, president of the Maryland School for the Blind. Such technology includes devices that generate Braille characters and Web applications that eliminate the need to view a screen.
"Technology has opened up the door for kids," Bina said. "It has made the playing field level for kids. It has allowed them to be more competitive. They don't have to wait for someone else as an intermediary to give them information."
The new technology had led some to believe that paper Braille would become obsolete. Not so, Bina said.
"You talk to blind adults, blind students," said Bina, "and they love their books. They read them just like I read mine."