Students, siblings bond at Braille competition

evan and olivia wilkerson use braille writers

Evan (left) and Olivia Wilkerson check their Braille writers during a recent competition.

As siblings often do, Evan and Olivia Wilkerson like to strike up a little friendly competition between them. The elementary-schoolers even trash-talk each other sometimes when they play goalball, a team sport designed for athletes who are visually impaired.

But at their most recent competition, a Braille Challenge, they worked beside each other like seasoned teammates, each clacking away on heavy metal Braille writers to show their mastery of the written language of the blind and visually impaired.

A kitchen timer ticked on the table as WCPSS proctor Jo Anne Smith alternated prompts for each student. It was Evan’s turn to spell “capes.”

“Batman and Superman both wear capes,” Smith said, reading a sentence for context.

Evan, a first-grader, cracked a smile as he typed. Next to him, Olivia waited patiently for her word—slightly more challenging, as she’s two years ahead of Evan at Durant Road Elementary School. The siblings both have low vision due to a rare degenerative eye condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis.

The students were competing in a regional competition of the national annual Braille Challenge, a program of the national Braille Institute. See more photos in the Facebook album. >>

Throughout several rooms at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, participants from WCPSS and the Governor Morehead School for the Blind showed their skills in reading and writing, their fluency in Braille contractions, and even how well they can read charts and maps.

The event is like a spelling bee, but for Braille, explains WCPSS Braillist Michelle Egan. Between exams, students are treated to a pizza lunch and hear from a guest speaker.

“I’m hoping that they get a sense of fellowship, and they can realize that there’s a future for them, that they can do anything,” Egan said.

“We get to know other kids, and we don’t get too competitive,” said Paige Strickland, a fifth grader at Durant Road. “The challenge teaches us good sportsmanship. It’s only a contest,” she explained.

students meet willie

Students meet Willie, Ed Summers’ guide dog.

This year’s guest speaker was Ed Summers, a software accessibility specialist at SAS who has lost his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. He brought along his guide dog Willie, a German Shepherd with majestic long hair.

Several students had heard of Summers and even met him before at conferences.

“I know Ed Summers!” Olivia said. “Me too,” her friend Paige said.

Summers said that with the use of a white cane and his guide dog Willie, he can do “almost everything I want to do.”

Two weeks ago, he was skiing in West Virginia, he said. A week later, he traveled to New York. And last year, he went all the way to Pune, India. He couldn’t bring Willie, so he had to navigate bustling city streets with his cane.

“Whoa!” some students said from their seats.

The students finished their lunches as Summers spoke about his job at SAS. One goal of his job is to make technology more accessible for users who are visually impaired, he explained.

Once he was finished talking, students also got to meet Willie before heading back to their classrooms to finish another round of Braille testing.

It will be a few more weeks before students learn whether any will move on to the national Braille Challenge in California. But being able to have a day together with friends from other schools and with each other was rewarding for Evan and Olivia, their mother said. Olivia got to take home new books in Braille, and was particularly happy to see Mr. Summers’ dog Willie again.

“That’s the only dog Olivia will pet,” Traci Wilkerson said. Evan was also excited to finally be old enough to compete in the challenge.

“I think they were excited to do it together. They’re really good friends,” Traci Wilkerson said. “They have a special connection.”

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