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San Jose: Competition where being blind is cool

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POSTED March 1, 2015 10:57 p.m.

SAN JOSE – The order of the day was competition, but the Northern California Regional Braille Challenge on Saturday was as much about camaraderie, coolness and compassion.

About 100 people gathered at the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center for one of more than 40 run-ups to a national contest in Braille reading and typing. The 27 contestants from Humboldt to Monterey counties tested their skills in a setting where being blind or visually impaired was all the norm.

“It’s great! I got a little time to meet with some other kids,” said Miles Lima, 6, of Manteca, after he and three other competitors in the youngest group appeared to have aced the spelling portion. Students used a Perkins Brailler, a six-key device slightly smaller than an older portable typewriter, to write answers.

“Braille is not hard to learn, but Braille is hard to master – becoming proficient with any kind of speed,” said Daniel Steve Mahan, CEO of the Blind Center. And using the Brailler, invented more than 60 years ago, takes some practice.

It’s not that technology has passed Braille users by. It has enhanced the literacy skills of many blind and visually impaired students. A device attachable to a computer or cell phone, for example, produces “refreshable Braille,” dots that pop up to enable the user to read one row at a time.

But tech has spread unevenly, so the national competition wanted to ensure a level playing field, said Alice McGrath of the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which co-hosted the event. So competitors everywhere have been using the Perkins Brailler.

In the intermediate-level room, students sat in silence as fingers glided across 11-inch-by-11-inch pages of Braille, occasionally pausing to type -- or “chord,” as the skill is called, akin to playing a piano. The competitions tested skills in reading comprehension, proofreading, spelling and reading charts and graphs.

One of the proctors, Caitlin Hernandez, 24, was the two-time national champion when she attended high school in Danville. While she was enthusiastic about competing, she said what she remembered was meeting older kids and getting tips from them. She’s now a UC Santa Cruz graduate who is working on her master’s and special-education teaching credential at San Francisco State.

The day started with a parade of guide dogs in training, adorable Labrador and golden retrievers paraded in by their trainers. “The thing that’s most important for a puppy is to get them used to being out in public when they are young,” said Warren Belfer of Palo Alto, who with 5-month-old Redwood led the dog parade.

Later, in an energetic pep talk Lisamaria Martinez of San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired declared that everyone should learn Braille: News anchors wouldn’t have to look at teleprompters, and speakers wouldn’t have to look at notes.

“Braille makes you comfortable,” she said. “Braille is cool.”

That message of coolness was directed at students and parents often used to being the different and decidedly uncool ones.

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