They can't see words on a page, but reading is at their fingertips thanks to Braille.
Fifty-two students, who use their sense of touch, not sight, when settling into a cozy chair with a good book, met at the Utah State Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired last week for the annual Braille Challenge. The students, ages 6 through 17, tested their ability to decipher the raised dots that make up the code in a competitive setting.
"I'm sighted right now, but I could go blind, so Braille would be my only way of communicating," said Taylorsville's Drew Harris, an Eisenhower Junior High eighth-grader, who competed in the contest.
Each student entered the competition under different circumstances. Some kids were born blind. Others can see fairly well now, but have progressive diseases that will one day rob them of their sight. Learning Braille, for "dual readers" like Drew, is a pre-emptive measure.
Running their fingers over tiny bumps, the young readers took several timed tests, which assessed their skills in areas such as reading comprehension, spelling, chart- and graph-reading, proofreading, and speed and accuracy. They typed their answers using a Perkins Brailler, a machine that resembles a typewriter but has only nine keys, which readers press in combination to create the dots that represent letters.
Winners took home ribbons and small cash prizes. The top scorers in the country will meet at the Braille Challenge finals in Los Angeles in June.
"My favorite part is probably the spelling because I'm a pretty good speller," said Drew. "Proofreading's hard because you have to find the mistakes. On comprehension, you read a story and then you have to answer questions. It's pretty easy."
The Utah Foundation for the Blind and Visually Impaired has sponsored and conducted the contest for six years so kids like Drew will continue to improve their Braille skills. Learning Braille, like learning to read, can determine a person's future success, according to Braille Institute of America studies. Thirty percent of blind adults work full time, and 90 percent of those who do are Braille readers, the institute says.
"[The Braille Challenge is a way] to promote Braille and encourage students, but also to reward them for that special effort of learning Braille," said Merrilee Petersen, activities coordinator for the Utah Foundation for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
It's also just plain fun. Students ate pizza, played bingo, listened to music and hung out with other kids who have similar issues.
"Many of them are in school districts that have five out of whatever, 10,000 kids, who read Braille, and they're definitely not in the same school," Petersen said. "So, when they come here, and they see their friends that they only see twice during the year, they really get close to them."
Drew -- who currently has 20/35 vision -- loves basking in the presence of his visually impaired peers.
"It's a good experience because at school I only have one other person that's like me," said the Taylorsville youth. "We are teased beyond compare. ... We have one other friend. The four of us sit at a table at lunch. So, this is kind of different."
Tony Jepson, a Jordan District teacher of the blind and visually impaired, agrees the social aspect is a major benefit of the Braille Challenge.
"Blindness is a bond," Jepson said. "It's something unique to them and nobody else. ... These kids understand precisely what each other are going through."
Varsity » Burgon Jensen, Midvale
Junior Varsity » Matthew Robinson, Beaver
Sophomore » Kortnee Barton, Syracuse
Freshman Novas » David Ashton, Lindon
Freshman » Marley Passey, Taylorsville
Apprentice Novas » Kalea Acuna, Ogden
Apprentice » Brianna Medina, Salt Lake City