Brilliant in Braille: Los Lunas second-grader to compete in national challenge

June 11, 2016 | | By Deborah Fox

LOS LUNAS – Raymond Gabaldon Elementary School second-grader Faith Switzer is a finalist in the regional 16th annual Braille Challenge held at the New Mexico School for the Blind in Alamogordo.

One of 50 finalists out of about 1,200 contestants from the U.S. and Canada, Faith will now go on to compete in the national competition in Los Angeles on June 18.

She also placed in the top 10 of the apprentice category for first- and second-grade students.

“I was excited,” Faith said about her accomplishment.

Her mother, Alexia Switzer, said when Faith learned she won the Braille Challenge, she was jumping up and down, squealing that they were going to California.

“I think it’s a really good challenge for any blind student who wants to participate because blind students need to know that it’s OK to be blind and it’s OK to be a Braille reader,” said Vickie Buchignani, Faith’s teacher for the blind and visually impaired at RGE.

Faith used to be fearful of taking tests, like any kindergarten student would, she said.

“Over the years, she’s become a kid who really likes the challenge of taking tests,” Buchignani said. “It’s really exciting to see that change.”

The Braille Challenge is the only national reading and writing contest for students who are blind and visually impaired. Faith competed in Braille reading comprehension, spelling, proofreading, speed and accuracy.

“Braille opens the doors of literacy, which, in turn, provides educational and employment opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired,” said Braille Institute President Peter Mindnich. “The passion and commitment these students demonstrate is an inspiration to us all.”

Faith reads at a fourth-grade level and can read 95-100 words in Braille per minute. She is currently reading “The Penguin Problem,” one of a series of “Ready Freddy” books.

A Los Lunas resident, Faith was born blind. She has a genetic retinal degenerative disease called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, her mother explained.

“Her father and I both carry a very rare recessive gene that caused her to be this way,” Alexia Switzer said.ward to going to college someday and wants to be a writer.

“She does everything well,” Cheryl Bowe said, “and succeeds.”

At 6 months old, Switzer started her daughter in the birth to 2 program at the New Mexico School for the Blind.

At 2 years old, Faith began preschool to learn pre-tactile Braille, a type of picture book that has raised pictures so blind children can feel the figures or objects.

“It worked out well for Faith,” Switzer said. “It gave her a boost on her education. She’s quite the intelligent little girl.”

It is estimated that Leber’s congenital amaurosis occurs in two to three per 100,000 newborns. It’s one of the most common causes of blindness in children.

“The interesting thing about Leber’s is a lot of the children who have it are very intelligent children,” Buchignani said. “It’s just amazing that a lot of the kids that we’ve seen around the country have high intelligence.”

Her mother adds that Faith is in the gifted program at school.

“She has a very high IQ and she does STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” Switzer said.

Faith’s favorite subjects are science and math and she can understand some seventh-grade level math concepts, her mother said.

“I can do division,” Faith adds.

For the spirited, golden-haired 8-year-old, being blind is not an insurmountable obstacle. It doesn’t stop her from participating in activities that sighted children enjoy.

She rides scooters, roller blades, rock wall climbs and, she said, “plays ball, shoot guns, bow and arrows, hand guns – my step-father aims it and then I shoot it.”

She played horseshoes where a beeper was placed at the target poles.

“One time, I threw the horseshoe and shattered the beeper,” she says giggling, clearly enjoying her prowess.

“I like riding (horses) but we don’t have any,” Faith says. “I go to granny’s. Grandma Jackie lives in the East Mountains.”

A precocious child, Faith has a spunky sense of humor and she doesn’t allow her visual impairment to slow her down.

“If she wants to do something, I find a way to let her do it,” Switzer said.

Faith has also gone zip-lining, hot air ballooning, fishing, swimming and flying airplanes with the Young Eagles at Mid Valley Airpark.

When she grows up, she’d like to be a pediatrician.

“I want to work with kids,” Faith explains.

The family has set up an account at to help raise the money for travel expenses to the California competition.