Merritt student aims to place at Braille Challenge

Kamloops This Week | June 16, 2015

Merritt secondary student Keisha Anderson is headed to Los Angeles this summer to compete in the 15th annual Braille Challenge.

Deanna Balison takes little credit for Keisha Anderson’s berth in the 15th annual Braille Challenge this summer. “She did this all on her own,” Balison said of Anderson, a Grade 10 student at Merritt secondary. But, involved or not, Balison couldn’t be happier her student is again participating in the event. “This is huge,” she said. “And . . . she’s one of 12 kids in her age group out of North America, basically, that gets to go.”

The Braille Challenge, hosted by the Braille Institute of America, is an annual academic competition designed to motivate students with visual impairments to practise and study braille in order to qualify for regional and national events in North America. Students are judged in four categories at the event — reading comprehension, braille speed and accuracy, proofreading and their ability to read tactile charts and graphs. From more than 1,100 students participating in 46 regional events, just 60 will attend this year’s national final, beginning in Los Angeles on June 20. Anderson competed in a regional event at the University of British Columbia to qualify — an event she won — and will be one of three Canadians making the trip to California for the final.

The 2015 Braille Challenge will mark the third time Anderson has competed in Los Angeles. “I’m very excited,” Anderson told KTW. “I like the challenge of it. It’s a lot of fun to do. “It’s a good challenge and it’s a really good experience if you can make it [to nationals] because you’re surrounded by a whole bunch of visually impaired people and their families, who are in the same boat as you.” Her goal this year is to place at the event, something she hasn’t managed to do in her three previous attempts.

Balison, who has worked with Anderson for six years as the district’s visually impaired resource teacher, wasn’t able to proctor her student’s regional event in Merritt this year. Undeterred, Anderson made the trip to UBC to qualify. “She doesn’t let anything stop her,” Balison said. Anderson is also a skier at Sun Peaks and hopes to participate in ski racing at the Paralympics one day. “She’s overall a regular kid, just she’s having trouble seeing,” Balison said.

Anderson has a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that results in the degeneration of the rod photoreceptors in the retina of the eye, resulting in severe vision impairment. For Anderson, the vision loss started young — she has been reading braille since kindergarten. Now she’s an avid reader and Balison described her as talented academic, a happy and persistent teenager who is willing to try anything.

The Braille Challenge will give her the opportunity to continue her study of braille. Anderson will compete to win some of the technology she will need once she leaves school. While the school district has access to all the adaptive programs and materials Anderson uses, she won’t have access to it once she graduates. Because braille technology isn’t mass-produced, Balison said it could cost anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 for Anderson to replace. “These kids have nothing once they leave the school,” Balison said. “It’s nice for them to have their own piece of technology and this gives them the chance to win it.” Obviously, it can sometimes be tough being the only student in Merritt who is blind, so the experiences Anderson will have in Los Angeles have Balison more pleased for her than anything.

Though she won’t take any of the credit for Anderson’s most recent berth at the challenge, she’s no less excited for her. “Not so much for the academic, it’s more for the social, the pride that she feels when she gets to do stuff like this,” she said. “Sometimes she gets excluded from stuff within the community or within the events at school, where she can’t fully participate. “This is something where they go and it’s like they’re any other normal kid, they get to participate. She just loves it — it’s nice to get to see her do that.”