Point Loma teen wins Braille Challenge

Victory is Cricket Bidleman’s fourth first place since 2006

By Paul Sisson | JUNE 23, 2015 | San Diego Union-Tribune

POINT LOMA — Cricket Bidleman has captured her fourth North American Braille Challenge victory — the first time in the varsity division — and she is already thinking about the next attempt.

“I have a title to uphold,” Bidleman said Tuesday, smiling as she corralled Nipi, her service dog, in the living room of her family’s Point Loma home.

Cricket, 16, competed against other blind teens in 10th to 12th grades from the United States and Canada. She was one of 60 finalists culled from more than 1,100 Braille students who had been picked to participate in the contest that tests speed, accuracy and comprehension.

Cricket has made the finals almost every year since she was a first-grader in 2006 — just a few years after her parents, Cliff and Sally Bidleman, adopted her from a Chinese orphanage.

The 10th-grader said she has always been confident in her Braille skills. Back in 2006, she recalled, she rode in an elevator with a fellow first-grade finalist from Maryland.

“I just told him, ‘I’m going to beat you.’ And I have,” Cricket said.

She has taken first place in her age class four times and second three times, according to records kept by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute of America, which hosts the annual competition.

Her track record is among the best in the history of the 15-year-old contest, said Nancy Niebrugge, the institute’s vice president of national programs. And her performance this year was especially notable, the executive added.

“For her to win the varsity-level competition as a 10th-grader is pretty impressive. She was going up against kids who have several more years experience,” Niebrugge explained.

The Braille Challenge is designed to be tough.

A speed and accuracy test has competitors use specially-designed Braille typewriters to transcribe audio recordings on the fly. They get a point for each correct word and lose two for each mistake.

They also have to take multiple-choice tests written in Braille and proofread written statements, checking for the proper syntax in “contracted” Braille, a kind of shorthand where a series of raised dots can represent not just individual letters but whole words.

Cricket said she went through some drama right out of the gate this year.

Her Brailler jammed several times during the speed and accuracy test, forcing her to manually remove scraps of paper from the machine so she could keep going.

“That’s what everybody calls the ‘dreaded test,’ but I enjoy it,” she said.

While the competition does provide a chance for young Braille masters show off their talents and find some camaraderie, Niebrugge said it also serves a deeper purpose.

At its core, she said, the challenge is about providing a fun reason for children to want to learn Braille in the first place.

According to the National Federation for the Blind, only about 10 percent of children learn Braille while growing up.

Most youngsters get the information they need from audio books, reading services and computer programs that turn text to sound.

For decades, there has been criticism of this trend in the blind community, with many equating reliance on audio services with illiteracy. A widely-cited 1996 study of blind Americans found a strong correlation between Braille literacy and employment.

“Part of the reason for the challenge is showing that when children are given the right tools, they’re able to function at a very high level,” Niebrugge said.

These days, Braille does not have to be low-tech. Day to day, Cricket uses a device called a BrailleNote to translate digital documents — from text files to websites — into Braille with no thick paper or clacking Brailler necessary.

The device takes digital text and outputs it on a row of plastic dots that raise and lower automatically.

Cricket said understanding Braille has given her the ability not just to read but also to discover her aptitude for mathematics.

In her first year at Point Loma High School, she found that she has a knack for physics. She plans to eventually become a physicist.

However, she will not graduate from high school in Point Loma.

The Bidleman family is packing for a move to Morro Bay to pursue a new job opportunity. The rest of the household comprises Cricket’s younger sister, Scout, also adopted from China, and an older brother, Tucker.

Sally Bidleman said watching her daughter excel in the Braille Challenge has been gratifying — not just because she has excelled. More importantly, the mother said, it has allowed others to see the intelligence that she herself has witnessed in her daughter since the preschool years.

“I wanted so badly for people to recognize how smart she is so that they won’t push her toward a way of life that won’t be right for her,” Bidleman said. “When she won, that was just proof that she’s on the way. People will never underestimate her.”