Muskogee teen shows skill, Braille’s relevance by winning national competition

June 27, 2015 | Ginnie Graham | Tulsa World

Muskogee teenager Richelle Zampella prefers to read through her hands despite the growing abundance of audio books. The 14-year-old isn’t picky about her literature but leans toward mysteries and poetry. Her skill at Braille earned her the winning title in the junior varsity division at last week’s Braille Challenge in Los Angeles.

“There is a tactile memory when you read in Braille,” Zampella said. “You remember more by reading than listening.” Zampella won the regional challenge in the spring held at her school, the Oklahoma School for the Blind.

She was among 60 finalists competing in various age divisions. Each is tested on skills in accuracy, comprehension, proof reading and charts and graphs. The reading parts were a breeze, but those math charts can be difficult to decipher. “Math is fun in school, but sometimes it’s hard to read the graphs,” she said.

The Braille Challenge is the only national reading and mathematics competition for students who are blind and visually impaired. It is sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute to encourage the study of Braille and promote its use. For students, it’s not only a contest but an opportunity to meet others from across the U.S. and Canada.

This is the second time Zampella qualified for the national level. Her sister, Katelynn Zampella, also earned eligibility to compete in another age division. “Everyone is a little competitive, but it’s more than that,” Zampella said. “It has made me more outgoing. It’s been a growing experience as well as a competition. This first time I was uncertain, but this year I knew what to expect.”

The emergence of audio files and other assistive technologies give the illusion Braille is not as necessary as it used to be. That would be wrong. The push for literacy skills for people with sight is the same reason Braille literacy is important for people with visual impairments.

“In some places, you will find Braille such as on doors and elevators,” Zampella said. “But I’m always surprised when I come across Braille. It seems obsolete in some places. It’s nice to know the places with access to Braille. You want to be as independent as you can be.”

Braille has been around since the mid-19th century as the universally accepted system for reading and writing for people with blindness and visual impairments. It’s named after the inventor, Louis Jean-Philippe Braille, who used raised dots to represent language. There has been a growing concern about the lack of Braille literacy among people with visual disabilities, instead relying on the emerging assistive technologies. Several organizations estimate that less than 10 percent of the blind and visually impaired population has mastered Braille.

The Zampella family moved to Muskogee so their girls could attend the Oklahoma School for the Blind and learn Braille and other skills needed for independence, said their mother, Sheila Zampella. “It was a relief to have a school for them,” she said. “When Richelle started learning Braille at about 4 ½ years old, we couldn’t get a book out of her hand. All the audio books went right out the door. At one point, she was so into reading that we had to work at getting her to go outside once in awhile.”

While the school incorporates Braille in its environment, that changes off campus. “You will see Braille in places like for restrooms or hospitals, but not for other, everyday places like menus in restaurants,” she said. “When it is not available, they have to rely on people verbally telling them what is going on. Kids want to be independent. They want to look over a menu just like their friends.”

Zampella is one of those students teachers dream about. She is an overachiever, a lover of literature, author of poetry, deep thinker and dedicated musician. She practices her saxophone every day, calling herself a “jazz-a-fanatic.” “Playing music is so rewarding. It’s an amazing experience to play,” she said. Zampella is not trained in reading music in Braille. No teacher has been available to teach that skill, though it didn’t stop Zampella. “I learn everything by ear,” she said. “At first, it was hard, but it gets easier. I think learning music this way is more rewarding. If I read it off a page, I might not get as much clarity out of it.”

Her plans are to attend college and study music to one day be a music teacher. Zampella will likely keep competing in the Braille Challenge. “All of these skills we use every day in Braille reading, and it challenges me to learn more,” Zampella said.