Students at ISBVI compete in annual Braille Challenget

Writer  /  Joshua Deisler

Mitchell Bridwell at his BrailleNote

Mitchell Bridwell pulls from his backpack a curious black box. A voice echoes from the gadget’s speaker. Mitchell drags his fingers over the row of dots as he reads one of the many books inside.

“I always love the ‘Harry Potter’ series,” says Mitchell, who often reads using his BrailleNote, an eReader for the visually impaired. His current favorite, though, is the “Maze Runner” series. A spirited Notre Dame fan, Mitchell is such a fluent Braille reader that he earned the highest honor at the National Braille Challenge.

Held at the Indiana School for the Blind (ISBVI), the Braille Challenge begins with the arrival of students and families from across the state. After an opening ceremony, students assemble into different groups according to age. Students then take several tests that evaluate their skills in comprehending, spelling, proofreading, transcribing, and even deciphering charts and graphs in Braille.

Indiana is one of 37 states that hosts a Regional Braille Challenge. “While we came late to the table, Indiana has really been a force to reckon with at the national level,” said school Superintendent Jim Durst. In some years, in fact, Indiana School for the Blind has sponsored more contestants than California, the state where the Braille Challenge first began.

This past February, 21 students participated in the Regional Braille Challenge. “Even the first year we did it, we sent out five kids to the nationals,” says Toni Hughes, director of outreach at ISBVI. “My goal was to surpass California, and we did that one year.”

Hughes has planned and directed the event for six of its seven years. “It’s what we’re all about,” she said. All participants are awarded a certificate and medal engraved with the words Indiana Braille Challenge. “The kids always enjoy those medals. No matter how many times they’ve gotten them,” said Hughes.

The Braille Challenge is more than simply a competition — it’s an opportunity for families of blind and visually impaired children to network and support each other. While the kids complete their Braille tests, parents learn how to help their children acclimate to new spaces and even how to play an ISBVI favorite, goal ball.

Toni Hughes (Director of Outreach), Mitchell Bridwell, and Jim Durst (Superintendent)

Eighth grader Mitchell not only won first place for the past two years, but he also earned such high marks his third grade year that he traveled to California to compete in Nationals, eventually scoring first place in his age group.

Mitchell will soon know if his scores will send him again to Nationals, where 60 students from all over country will compete. “I just hope I can make it this year,” he said. “I really want to win again.”

Even still, Mitchell enjoys other hobbies than just reading. But competing on the speech team and playing the trumpet and the piano can’t compare to one of his favorite pastimes — cheering for Notre Dame.

And, as he leaves to return to class, he proudly chants, “Go Irish!”

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