At the end of the month, Providencia Elementary School 3rd-grader Ethan Moore will find out how he did in the Braille Challenge, a series of tests taken by school-age children who have visual impairments. He made it to the final round, one of the 10 in his age group topping a list of about 200 competitors, and recently took his culminating exam.
He’s not nervous about the results.
“I felt confident,” he said in a Zoom interview with his mother, Burbank resident Katie Moore, and his Braille teacher Lupe Vigil.
“Was it too hard?” Moore asked.
“No,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
The 8-year-old has reason for his self-assuredness. During his first try at the Braille Challenge, an annual contest that attracts roughly 1,000 students across the United States and Canada, he took third place in the Southern California regional challenge last year.
Neither his teacher nor his mother expected him to perform so well. Ethan didn’t have much time to practice before the challenge began, said Vigil, who works for the Glendale Unified School District but also teaches children in La Cañada Flintridge and Burbank since their local school districts share special education services.
At the time, Vigil added, her student was halfway through the 1st grade and was just starting to learn how to read and write full sentences in Braille. So when he earned third place, she said, “It was a really nice surprise.”
Even during a year of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic — which also prompted the Braille Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, to have teachers like Vigil proctor the exams rather than having them at a regional location — Ethan’s knowledge of the writing system still progressed, his mother said.
“We’re so proud of him,” she said. “He’s kept up on his skills and he’s amazed us all. This whole year, it’s been obviously stressful for everyone, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out with everything, but his Braille skills and his learning [have] just continued to move in the right direction.”
Moore explained that her son is almost totally blind due to a brain tumor the family learned he had when he was 5 months old. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles became a “home away from home,” she said, but after Ethan had about two years of chemotherapy the Moores haven’t been back, other than for the occasional MRI scan.
The local mother said she and her husband wanted Ethan to learn Braille so he could participate in class with other children. Activities should be accessible to him, she believes, but he should also be independent.
“One of the nurses, when he was first diagnosed, told us from the get-go, ‘You treat him like you would every other child.’ And that’s kind of been our thing,” Katie Moore said. “As much as we do probably help more with certain things, we want him to be self-sufficient and for him to be a strong person on his own.”
The Braille Challenge also allows students who might not be able to participate in some competitions — such as sports events — to experience a contest, according to Matthew Beckwith, national and youth programs manager at the Braille Institute.
During the closing ceremony at the end of the month, contest administrators will recognize the top three competitors for each grade group.
“The whole idea is to create a space where they’re recognized and encouraged,” Beckwith said, “and where they have an opportunity to compete and to have the motivation to keep working on their Braille skills and get better.”
Studies have also shown a positive correlation between Braille literacy and the likelihood a person with a visual impairment is employed, he added. And though the vast variety of visual impairments mean that some who have an impairment can read print with a magnifier or a screen reader, he believes that’s very different from knowing how to read and write.
It’s a hotly debated topic, Vigil said, but she shares that stance.
“Without Braille, you’re illiterate,” she explained. “As good as [technology] is, it’s not perfect, and you can’t rely solely on the computer picking up your voice. … So if you don’t have Braille skills, it’s like not learning how to read and write. To me, there’s no way around it.”
Despite Ethan’s success in the spelling portion of the test — “90 words in 45 minutes,” he said proudly — his favorite school subject is math. But that, too, requires a knowledge of Braille, and relies on a system different from that used to write words.
Ethan wouldn’t have progressed as far as he has, Moore said, without the help of Vigil and the Burbank Unified School District. Moore grew up in the BUSD, she added, but was shocked that there were so many support programs for students with visual impairments.
And the advances Ethan has made in his Braille skills, Moore and Vigil said, have already filled them with pride — regardless of the outcome of the Braille Challenge.
“Like I told Ethan,” Vigil added, “just the fact that he made it this far, considering the year and considering Zoom [classes] and everything … he’s already a winner.”