The proctor reads the word to be spelled, uses it in a sentence for context, then repeats the word.
“‘Advice,’” she reads. “‘Parents are known for giving good advice.’” She and the timekeeper chuckle softy at the example sentence as the spelling test begins.
Three children, Lexi Mink, 8, Matthew Falco, 8, and Asher Koren-Zoloto, 9, sit at a long table, softly sounding out the word as their fingers spread across the keys of their Braille writers, searching for the correct combination of keys.
“You can tell they’re enjoying it,” said Diane Covington, school and community liaison for the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton. “When you see a child get all excited with the clacking and dinging of the Braille writers all going, it’s so rewarding.”
The center, in conjunction with the National Braille Institute and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, hosted the 2017 Braille Challenge on Jan. 26. Participants from first to 12th grade all competed in spelling, reading comprehension, speed and accuracy in a competitive setting designed to hone their skills and foster a sense of community.
“It’s a tough test and it’s tough on purpose,” said Jim Olson, material supervisor for the CSDB in Colorado Springs. Olson, the only sighted person in the room, kept the Braille writers from running out of paper and the children from running out of patience.
“It’s a time to celebrate Braille, not for them to be stressed out,” he said. “It’s for them to show what they know and have a great time doing it.”
Koren-Zoloto and Falco were doing just that as they tussled with each other during a break.
“I want to win, and I’m going to beat Matthew,” said Koren-Zoloto, a student at Westminster’s Cotton Creek Elementary. He has Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a degenerative eye disease affecting about one in every 80,000 people.
Like many children his age, he enjoys reading Harry Potter books and fighting monsters, but his mother, Hila Koren, said he’s increasingly aware that his loss of vision makes him different from his peers.
“It’s really great to be in an environment where he sees he’s not alone,” she said. “This is invaluable.”
Koren-Zoloto’s fast friend, 8-year-old Matthew Falco, reveled in the opportunity to grab some pizza and blow off steam after the first half of the competition.
“It was so hard,” said Falco, who attends Crown Pointe Academy in Westminster. “You have to do everything so fast.”
A fall from a slide ruptured a cyst on Falco’s brain at age 4, taking most of his vision. A shunt keeps enough pressure off his optic nerve to preserve some of his sight, though that could change if the shunt fails. Nevertheless, Falco’s mother, Amber, said he’s more independent than most 8-year-olds she’s known.
“He’s always saying ‘Mom, I want to cook you breakfast,’” she said. “He looks out for (his younger sisters), he’s their mediator when they fight and he wants to teach them Braille.”
Like Koren-Zoloto, 8-year-old Lexi Mink, a student at Vista Peak Elementary in Aurora, has LCA. She uses a walking stick to get around but enjoys her favorite activities — swinging at recess and cheerleading after school — without it.
Mink said the tests were “challenging” and she knows she’ll be able to use what she practiced there in her schoolwork.
“Let’s just say that you have a little fun when you do it because you can get better and use what you learn at the Braille Challenge at school,” she said.
It will take several days to tally the scores, and only 12 students from across the United States and Canada will be selected in May to advance to the national competition in California.
And Mink wants to be one of them.
“You have to work super hard if you’re going to win,” she said. “I want to win first place … then I would be able to go to California. And maybe Disney World.”