Maddy Mau was relaxing at home with her parents when she got the call. She had placed as one of 50 finalists in the national Braille Challenge, an academic competition for students who are visually impaired.
Mau is a rising freshman at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. This was her first time competing in the challenge; many of her peers have been participating for years.
“I was so surprised that I made it to finals,” Mau said. “I didn’t expect that I’d be able to match [my classmates’] skill level.”
Like many other people who are visually impaired, Mau makes use of screen readers, audio files and electronic Braille readers, But she does not see these technologies as a replacement for print Braille. She likens the experiences to a sighted person listening to an audio book versus reading a print book. “Braille provides a much more detailed understanding of what’s going on in a text,” she said.
For the Braille Challenge, students in grades 1 through 12 are eligible to participate. The competition is organized annually by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute. Students are tested on reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, and charts and graphs.
Mau learned about the event from friends who are also blind and who competed in past years. Although a few of her classmates in middle school had low vision, she was the only student who used Braille. Mau said she has found a community of friends who are also blind through her participation in various extracurricular activities.
She took part in the regional Braille Challenge competition in February and completed her remote final competition on July 6. Finals are typically held in-person in Los Angeles, but this year’s competition and closing ceremonies are being held remotely. The Braille Challenge closing ceremony will be held on July 31 via a YouTube livestream.
Some of Mau’s classmates had regimented practice schedules leading up to the competition days. Mau said she wanted to participate just for the fun of it, so she took a more relaxed approach. Several practice tests from the Braille Institute and some tips and tricks from veteran competitors sufficed, to her surprise, to earn Mau a spot in the finals.
The challenge is valuable on multiple levels, Mau said — it helps students build fundamental skills like proofreading, reading and writing quickly and provides an opportunity to socialize with other kids who are visually impaired. “The sense of community and companionship is so important because it lets blind kids know that there are other people like them,” she said.