The Braille Challenge is a national reading and writing competition for blind and visually impaired school age children, according to Jordana Engebretsen who teaches braille to visually impaired students of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD). “All across the United States school age kids that read braille get together and compete and the finalists go on to a national finals that will be held in Los Angeles, California,” said Engebretsen. Jordana first came to KPBSD two years ago and last fall moved here permanently from Minnesota. She grew up in Ecuador as a sighted person she told the Dispatch, “I didn’t ever meet a blind person in my country.” Jordana was already an adult when she lost her sight at age 21, after contracting Lupus, a disease that attacks the nervous system and visual cortex of the brain. After contracting the disease she moved to the U.S. where she knew no one but was able to enter a rehabilitation program in Minnesota at a school for the blind where she ultimately completed a Master of Arts degree.
Braille is a system of reading and writing by touch that consists of arrangements of dots which make up letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks. Braille was first developed in the late 1820’s by a young Frenchman named Louis Braille who lost his sight as a young boy in a workshop accident. Three student braille readers competed in the KPBSD’s 1st Braille Challenge at the Soldotna Library last Friday; Maria Maes, Destiny Schmidt and Malikhi Hansen. According to Engebretsen only a small percentage of the 90,000 legally blind young adults in the U.S. read braille, “Only ten percent are braille readers and that’s tragic because braille opens the doors for many opportunities in life, plus it builds self confidence in your ability to get a job and be independent,” she said.
About 40 members of the community turned out for the first Braille Challenge and public event at the Soldotna Library to support the competitors and learn more about the program sponsored by the KPBSD. The Soldotna Rotary Club stepped up to provide pizza and specially designed award plaques for the students. The plaques were fabricated in braille by Mackey Lake Co. of Soldotna. “The afternoon was amazing. A great deal of preparation went into this first competition and we’re grateful for the community support and the Soldotna Rotary Club who made my students feel so special. My students competed in the four levels of testing which was very intense for them all morning, so the afternoon public awards presentation was very special and meant a great deal to them,” said Engebretsen. Each student competed in four categories of the braille challenge; Reading comprehension, speed and accuracy, proof reading and charts and graphs. The results of the testing will be sent off to the National Braille Institute in Los Angeles, California where the three students will be scored by braille transcribers certified by the National Library of Congress, “As a braille teacher we are not allowed to score our own participants so we will have to wait a month or two to get the results back to see if our kids will advance to the finals. Additionally we will see how our students are doing in comparison to all the other braille students in the country,” said Engebretsen.