Three blind students from the Northwest suburbs will test their nimble fingers against some of the best Braille readers in the nation this weekend.
Alyssa Townsend, 9, of Lake Zurich, Jack Falejczyk, 7, of Elk Grove Village, and Hannah Hakes, 12, of Naperville are the only Illinois finalists in the Braille Institute of America's 2008 National Braille Challenge.
They are among 69 finalists chosen from roughly 500 regional contestants in the U.S. and Canada. All three placed first in their age group in the Chicago Regional Braille Challenge to qualify for the national contest, which organizers say is the only comprehensive Braille reading and writing competition.
The competition is Saturday in Los Angeles.
Contestants' Braille skills will be tested in five categories: reading comprehension; writing speed and accuracy; spelling; proofreading; and reading charts and graphs.
"I'm excited and I'm a little nervous that I might not win," said Alyssa, the only blind student at Lake Zurich's Charles Quentin Elementary School, where she will begin fourth grade this fall. "I'm just reading as much as I can."
Alyssa says she's strong in spelling and reading comprehension, but she's nervous about deciphering word contractions in Braille.
For her, knowing Braille is like being a member of an exclusive club and having a skill none of her sighted peers can master.
Alyssa was quick to catch on to Braille, said her mother, Pam Townsend.
"At the beginning, I tried to keep up," Pam Townsend said. "She passed me after the first six months, and she didn't need my help so I just kind of gave up on it."
The contest's goal is to encourage blind students to become highly Braille-literate, said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the National Braille Challenge.
"It's also a celebration of Braille," she said. "These kids get accommodated for everything. This is an opportunity where it's all about their medium, their competency. It's a real confidence-builder for them. Most of them are in mainstream schools. This allows them to build a unique peer group."
The contest also aims to raise public awareness about blindness and the significance of Braille.
Hakes, who will attend Washington Junior High School in Naperville this fall, is the only blind student in her school district. She has to use several adaptive devices to keep up with her peers.
"I think competing helps to raise her self-esteem and shows others that she is just as capable and intelligent as any sighted kid her age," said her mother, Carolyn Hakes.
All national finalists get a trophy for participation. The top three winners earn savings bonds worth $500 to $5,000, depending on their age and grade level.
Finalist Jack Falejczyk is after the grand prize -- a portable Braille computer.
"I will win first place," he excitedly proclaimed Wednesday. "It's easier to Braille on that and you don't have to push so hard on it."
Falejczyk, who starts third grade this fall at Byrd Elementary in Elk Grove Village, is the only Braille reader in his district. Though he thrives academically, he struggles socially in school as many blind children do, said his mother, Beth Falejczyk.
She said qualifying for his first competition boosted his confidence tremendously.
"He is not nervous at all," she said. "These kids can't do so many things that their peers can, like sports and physical activities, which is so much a part of our culture. So it gives him something to be able to compete (in) and show off his skill set."
What is Braille?
Named after its French inventor, Louis Braille, this raised-dot touch reading system is the written language of blind people worldwide.
How Braille came to be
• Born Jan. 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France, Louis Braille was 3 years old when he injured his left eye trying to make a leather harness in his father's shop. An infection spread to both eyes and he eventually became blind.
• Braille entered the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris in 1819, which taught a method of touch-reading known as embossing, using large, printed letters with raised outlines that could be traced with fingers. He started searching for a new reading method in 1821, and was inspired by Morse code, an alphabetical code of dots and dashes used for sending and receiving messages at night.
• In 1824, he invented what has become the modern system of Braille. Each unit known as the Braille cell has spaces for up to six dots, two across and three down. Using different numbers of dots in different arrangements in each cell, Braille formed 63 dot combinations to represent letters, numerals and musical and scientific symbols.
Tune in to the challenge
• AIRS Los Angeles, a reading service for those who are blind or sight-impaired, will broadcast the Braille Challenge Awards Ceremony live at 6:30 p.m. Pacific time (8:30 p.m. Central) on Saturday from the Hilton Universal Hotel in Los Angeles.
• Winners will be announced from among the top 69 regional finalists in attendance from throughout the United States and Canada. To listen to the live broadcast, visit www.airsla.org and click on the streaming page for instructions. A podcast version will be available later on the site's Braille Institute Programs page.
For more information, visit www.braillechallenge.org.