Students gather in Baton Rouge to show their talent, speed at Braille

DANIEL BETHENCOURT | The Advocate | Feb. 12, 2015

A Baton Rouge school library was filled with the sounds of clacks and dinging bells Wednesday morning.

About a dozen students were listening and transcribing, competing against the clock — while hammering away at typewriter-shaped machines called Perkins Braillers.

“If you hit a wrong button, you get lost,” said Gianni Toce, 14, of Mandeville, who has been in similar competitions since the fourth grade. “You’re trying to Braille as fast as you can … It’s very laborious. I broke a sweat.”

More than 110 youths from around the state were vying for top spots in the Louisiana Braille Challenge — a series of speed-reading and transcription feats held at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired. The winner was Donovan Chasson, who qualified for a trip to Los Angeles to compete in the National Braille Challenge at the Braille Institute.

Braille is both an alphabet and shorthand whose arranged bumps form a code that once learned, replicates the printed alphabet along with separate codes for math and music. Braille’s characters take up a lot of space compared with conventional-print English. For example, the Braille edition of the American Heritage Student Dictionary has 31 volumes, said Bobby Simpson, the school’s director, gesturing at the hard-bound books that took up several shelves. Students looking for a word have to figure out which volume holds the word they’re looking for, then skim across the tops of pages with their fingers to narrow the search. One of the school’s geometry textbooks has 77 volumes.

“Braille is very bulky and very cumbersome,” Simpson said.

But Simpson said that Braille remains critical for blind students compared with audio-based aids and new narration apps on mobile devices.

“Braille is what shows the totally blind child that he’s literate,” he added.

Students said they relished the chance to show off their dexterity in an alphabet that can be extremely difficult to process under time constraints.

“I was exceptionally nervous when I showed up, and I still am,” said 14-year-old Chloe Ashford, of Holden. “It is an honor to be a part of this … and to be able to do something (where) I’m not limited or separated.”

For the competitors’ parents, the event was a chance to see their kids excel at something they enjoy — and also make friends from across the state.

“The average person can’t wrap their head around what a visually impaired person can do,” said Christine Delatte, of Thibodeaux, whose six-year-old son, Owen, was competing for the first time. “This is something that he knows he can excel in. It definitely gives him a boost of confidence.”

Rachel Marvin, of Belle Chasse, said her daughter, Miranda, didn’t want to learn Braille at first. But she’s since been pleased by the steps in math problems that her daughter has been able to hold in her head.

“She didn’t want to be different. That was the challenge, getting her to realize being different is not bad. It’s unique. I think the other kids find it fascinating.”

Other winners of the challenge were: