Erin seventh-grader wins regional Braille Challenge

Mark Hicks, The Stewart Houston Times | CDT April 24, 2015

ERIN, Tenn. – Graham Walker is a typical seventh-grader who enjoys hanging out with friends and playing video games. He has his own hobbies too, like learning to play the French horn.

But unlike most of his peers, Graham has been blind from birth, and his teachers and parents are challenged to keep up with his voracious appetite for learning.

In March, the Houston County middle schooler illustrated the payoff of an individualized education when he won the Junior Varsity Division (seventh though ninth grades) of the Tennessee Regional Braille Challenge in Nashville.
“I was really surprised he won this year,” said his mother, Sydney Walker. “Each of the levels are education-appropriate, so the JV included high school material.”

Like millions of other visually impaired people, Graham relies on Braille as his primary conduit to knowledge.

He entered the Houston County School System at age 3 and began learning Braille in preschool. He has competed in the Braille Challenge since 2008, winning some of the events and placing second in others.

Graham acknowledged that competing against high school-level students was different from past competitions.

“It was really hard, actually. But I thought I did pretty well,” he said, adding that the toughest parts were reading maps.

Fortunately, Graham had been assisted in map and chart reading by Mary Rinehart, the school system’s teacher for visually impaired students.

“This is a big, big deal,” Rinehart said. “By winning, Graham has a chance to move on to the National Braille Challenge in Los Angeles.”

Rinehart said 1,100 students in the U.S. and Canada participated in the 15th annual Braille Challenge, with 28 of those from Tennessee. She explained that the Tennessee Region includes not only the Volunteer state, but also the contiguous states.

The Braille Challenge categories include reading comprehension, Braille speed and accuracy, proofreading, spelling and reading tactile charts and graphs.

The Tennessee Challenge was sponsored by the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge 46 in Nashville, which is a Jewish service organization.

Rinehart said the organization also paid for a surprise party for Graham and his HCMS classmates on April 16 to celebrate his accomplishment. One of the highlights was a cake shaped like a Braille machine.

Orchestrated effort

Sydney Walker not only credits Rinehart and Graham’s other teachers for his success, but also the school system.

“To be a small system, he has really excelled,” she said.

Currently, Graham is the only visually impaired student in Houston County schools, so Rinehart works with him and for him, as well as with the middle school staff, to develop a plan for his education.

“She has put together an unbelievable program,” Sydney Walker said of Rinehart. “It’s so complex.”

“She is the orchestra director,” added HCMS Principal Anita Gray, referring to her coordination with all of Graham’s teachers.

Gray said teachers at the school have embraced the challenge of including Graham in their classrooms.

While “inclusion” is a term often associated with incorporating special needs and handicapped children into regular classrooms, the principal said that in Graham’s case, it has been “individualizing” his education in a way to overcome his obstacles. She stressed that individualizing is what they try to accomplish for all HCMS students.

Gray said that when she was a teacher at another school, she had a blind student in her class, and the school system had no one like Rinehart, who could focus on the particular challenges of a visually impaired child. So, she had to “wing it.”

“After seeing what Mary has done with Graham, I realize there was so much more that could have been done for that other student,” she said.

Gray added that the visually impaired make up only 1 to 2 percent of people considered handicapped or disabled, however, the group has the highest percentage of unemployment.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Graham will not be a statistic,” Rinehart said.

And she is an integral part of his success.

Rinehart transcribes entire textbooks into Braille for Graham, because rarely are Braille versions offered. Additionally, she transcribes individual teacher’s lesson plans and worksheets in advance so Graham can keep up.

If that were not a full slate of duties, she also duplicates the associated charts, graphs and maps into Braille.

Musical dots

“We are learning Braille music now,” said Rinehart, who admits to having a Braille tag that reads: “Seeing dots” on her car. “I’m learning (Braille music) right along with Graham.”

After starting with a recorder in sixth grade, Graham now has chosen to learn the French horn.

“I wanted to play the saxophone,” Graham said. “I like the way it sounds and it looks fun to play. It sounds jazzy.”

Band Director Matt Whitt recommended that Graham play the French horn instead.

“I think I like the French horn better,” he said. “I think it would be kind of fun to try the saxophone. But the French horn is harder to play; it’s a challenge. I also think it sounds really cool.”

Sydney Walker said her son recently played with an ensemble at Northeast High School in Clarksville and received a superior rating after playing the French horn for only six months.

More to offer

Because Rinehart is also a certified general education teacher, she can help in various classrooms, as well as drawing on her experience with visually impaired students to assist other teachers who are trying to meet particular needs.

And the converse is also true.

“Without exception, the middle school is hugely successful,” Rinehart said. “Teachers very often go above and beyond what they have to for Graham and for all the students.

“And not a person here does more than another to achieve that success,” Gray added.

Rinehart termed it a “taller tower of support.”

Such support isn’t exclusive to the staff. Students also contribute.

A couple of students have approached Rinehart about learning Braille, and others want to learn to be human guides, “because they want Graham to be where they are,” she said.

“Graham learns so much from them, and they love learning from him,” she added. “He’s no different than the other kids, he just accesses the world differently.”