Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Building Dreams for Blind Children One Page at a Time: A Report on the Braille Readers Are Leaders Program

by Aloma Bouma

Editor’s Note: When the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest begins on November 1 this year, it will be the twentieth conducted jointly by the National Organization of

NFB President, Marc Maurer, stops for a chat with busy Readers Are Leaders volunteers.   On the left are NFB members Bernice Lowder and Mary Kuforiji, and on the right are Rolling Hills Federated Women's Club members Katherine Carbonneau and Aline Norris.
NFB President, Marc Maurer, stops by for a chat with busy Braille Readers Are Leaders volunteers. On the left (left to right) are NFB members Bernice Lowder and Mary Kuforiji, and on the right are Rolling Hills Federated Women’s Club members Katherine Carbonneau and (seated) Aline Norris.

Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB). That seemed like a pretty good reason for a party, and that’s what the two groups threw, with the help and support of the United Parcel Service (UPS) Foundation, on the Monday afternoon of the 2003 convention in Louisville. During that event, division officials announced an expansion of the Braille Readers contest beginning this fall, again with considerable financial support from the UPS Foundation. In this issue you will find a one-page form for the use of those interested in participating in the 2004 contest and literacy program. Even if you are reading this notice or sending the form back after November 1, you still have time to ensure that the blind child in your life takes part in the contest or participates in the program for prereaders. But act today. Consult the tear-out form for exact details and complete and return it immediately.

This moment of looking forward to an expanded program also seemed a good time to look back over what we have accomplished during these last nineteen contests and to pay tribute to some of those who have made our success possible. Aloma Bouma, a former journalist and one-time member of the staff at the National Center for the Blind, did a review of our very successful Braille Readers Are Leaders Program. Here it is:

Nearly twenty years have passed since we first began our Braille reading contest for blind children. The Braille Readers Are Leaders program was born out of a commitment to design a national reading contest for blind children similar to reading programs for sighted kids. Sponsored jointly by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB), this contest has brought blind children the education and adventure they need to shape their dreams, a foundation of skills necessary to build those dreams, and the encouragement and self-confidence to make them come true.

Since 1984 thousands of blind children have participated in our Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. Hundreds have been winners, and hundreds of thousands of pages of Braille have been read. All contestants receive certificates and ribbons for participating, and the contest, which runs from November through January each year, awards cash prizes, certificates, and ribbons to the top five winners in each of five categories. These include the beginning (first year) Braille readers and four grade levels: K-1, 2-4, 5-8, and 9-12. In the Most Improved catagory, special ribbons are awarded to the top-ten most improved readers each year. Applicants can enter every year, and the winners are determined by the number of Braille pages read and verified by a designated parent, teacher, or librarian.

Keeping track of the applicants, winners, and pages read each year is a tremendous project. Accomplishing this job efficiently takes a lot of work—work that would not be done smoothly and consistently without a lot of help. Judges, parents, teachers, contest supervisors, and those who manage the computer files for the contest all play an important part. Since 1997, however, some of the most complex, time-consuming, and intensive parts of the work have been done by a remarkable group of volunteers from the Rolling Hills Women’s Club of Catonsville, Maryland.

In 1997, designated internationally as “The Year of The Child,” the wonderful partnership between the Catonsville Women’s Club and the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest began. “We have been incredibly fortunate to have the help of these women,” said NOPBC President Barbara Cheadle. “There is no way to estimate the tremendous value of their contribution to the Braille Readers contest. Their commitment to blind children and to this project has built friendships and respect among all of us,” she said.

Ruth Burgess, a club leader, now seventy-five, was looking for a project for the club that would benefit the blind—one of the suggested service projects by the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. Burgess thought that perhaps her club could donate toys or determine another project to benefit blind children, so she began to look through her local telephone book. And the rest, as they say, is history. She contacted the National Federation of the Blind and talked to Barbara Cheadle, and together they developed a plan.

“We were invited to tour the Federation office, and our eyes were opened to all that the NFB does,” Burgess explained. “We learned about blindness, and we quickly wanted to work with the Braille reading contest.” And worked they have. For seven years Burgess and other club members have helped to tabulate and record the number of pages read by every Braille Readers Are Leaders contestant—no small accomplishment. Every year, during the last two weeks of February and the first week of March, dedicated club members arrive at the National Center for the Blind to contribute their time and energy to help blind children, and they have come to look forward to it. “Those of us who have done it before are really anxious to come back,” Burgess exclaimed. “We really love to do it. It makes a difference to us. Sometimes, when you are doing something that you believe in, you think you are doing it to help someone else, but you are really doing it because it is something that has become important to you,” she said.

The work the women perform is certainly detailed. They begin by reviewing the application form submitted by each applicant. This form lists the child’s name, age, grade, and school and the author, title, and number of pages read in each book. These numbers, previously tabulated by the supervising parent or teacher, must be reviewed and double-checked for each applicant and every book. Once they verify the number of pages read, one of the women dictates the information from the form to a blind volunteer, who records this information in Braille. Both print and Braille copies are then filed together in the various contest categories.

The Rolling Hills Women’s Club participates in other areas of the contest as well. They help place all of the awards, certificates, and ribbons in the applicants’ award packets, and they share in the joy and excitement of the awards ceremony held for Maryland contest winners, where they provide and serve refreshments. “It is a wonderful experience to see the kids get their awards,” said Burgess. “We are always impressed with the way these young people conduct themselves; it is just a revelation to see how they do. All of us have learned so much about what the blind are doing. We are always impressed when a youngster has read three thousand pages. But someone who has read eight pages has worked just as hard as the one who read three thousand. For the person who read eight pages, it is just as much of an accomplishment,” Burgess said.

Volunteering with the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest is a team effort for the Rolling Hills Women’s Club. About a dozen women have participated over the years, and they are all proud of their work. The club has also been recognized for its efforts, winning a regional award for the project from the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. Mary France, who was club president from 1996 to 1997, tries to come every year. “Even though my husband graduated from the Maryland School for the Blind, I personally knew very little about Braille,” she said.

The club’s current president is Rae Warshaw, seventy-one, a retired schoolteacher. She likes to work with numbers, so she helps to tabulate all of the pages read by each contestant, although she is also eager to pitch in wherever needed. Rae feels very strongly about the importance of getting kids to want to read, and she supports incentive programs and competitions like Braille Readers Are Leaders. “If you can’t read, you are lost,” she said.

The contest has grown substantially over the years, increasing from approximately two hundred applicants each year to over four hundred. This means, in turn, that the number of pages read and tabulated each year has increased. For example, the total number of pages read by all contestants in the 2000-2001 contest year was 476,015. One enthusiastic Braille reader managed to read twenty thousand pages! While this is an outstanding achievement, we are proud to say it is a feat attainable by many blind children who have received instruction in reading and writing Braille.

Of course the growth of the contest means additional work for the Rolling Hills Women’s Club and all of the other volunteers who work on the project. Two volunteers in this second group are Bernice Lowder and Mary Kuforiji, both blind parents from the Baltimore area. It is up to these two women to copy into Braille all of the print contest information read to them by the Rolling Hills volunteers. This is no small task. Each year Kuforiji and Lowder have dedicated long hours to helping with the Braille Readers contest, and we couldn’t manage without them.

In addition to transcribing into Braille the information from each applicant, Kuforiji and Lowder tabulate the annual number of contestants and track each applicant’s contest category. Lowder emphasizes the value of a contest like this, saying, “These kids are given a chance to learn to love reading, and the challenge of the competition really helps them improve their Braille skills.” The importance of building better Braille literacy for blind children is an important component of the contest, agrees Kuforiji. “It is the only way to become a fast Braille reader, especially when you are young,” she said.

The contest judges also play a vital role in the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. For many years the two judges were blind Braille instructors, Ellen Ringlein and Ruth Sager. Their job was to make sure the applicants met all of the contest requirements and to verify what type of Braille materials each read. Textbooks and homework, for example, cannot be counted as a part of the contest. Some schools and children have a difficult time acquiring enough Braille books and materials, so the contest allows students to read a book more than once. The judges, however, have to make sure that students did not read a book more than three times.

Ringlein said that another important job of the judges has been to select the ten most improved readers each year. This isn’t easy, because the winners are chosen based on the number of pages increased, not simply the number of pages read. Winners of the Most Improved category must not have won in any contest category in previous years. This special award, she said, motivates readers. “It is designed as an incentive to those who are not likely to be competitive in other categories, and it encourages them to keep working on their skills,” she said.

Sager has seen great improvement in the number of pages contestants have read over the years. You might expect that, as children grow older and have more ability and experience, they would increase their reading amounts. However, Sager is particularly impressed by the increases she has seen among young children. “The number of pages read by the kindergarten through fourth grade categories has increased substantially. At one time the top young winners would have read approximately one thousand pages, but today a young child has to read about three thousand pages to compete in the top three placements,” she noted.

In recent years the judges have also awarded special Honor Roll ribbons for readers who have not yet achieved top honors but who show remarkable ability. These color-coded ribbons are awarded in classifications based on the number of pages read by non-award-winners. “Many students read from five hundred to over eight thousand pages. We want to show them that they are making great progress, and we need to encourage them to keep improving,” she said.

Nadine Jacobsen, president of NAPUB, cannot say enough about the volunteer Braille transcribers, the judges, and the women of the Rolling Hills Women’s Club. “A national contest like ours takes a lot of effort, dedication, and love for the project. We have the very best group of volunteers anyone could ask for,” Jacobsen remarked. “The Braille Readers Are Leaders contest has proven to increase the interest and ability of blind children as they develop Braille reading skills. Developing these skills at an early age will be one of the best gifts we can give our children as they grow into independent, successful, and competent adults,” she said.

It isn’t just the volunteers who love the Braille Readers contest. The students, parents, teachers, and administrators share our feelings for the importance of this reading program. Following, you will find letters from a previous contest winner and a teacher. They express the overwhelming need, interest, and gratitude for this Braille reading competition. Here they are:

 

Dear NFB,

I liked when I got first place in the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. I worked hard to achieve my goal. Your contest encourages kids like myself to read. I got a bike with the money I won. We went to Wal*Mart to get my bike. I picked out the pink one. My dad put training wheels on the bike. Thanks again.

Sincerely,

Paige Tuttle

Just wanted to mention that when I first started working with Paul, one and one-half years ago, he barely would read one page of Braille independently. Even though he probably won’t be a contest winner, I am very proud of what he has accomplished.

Sincerely,

Mary Ellen Smith, teacher of the visually impaired

Not only has our Braille Readers Are Leaders contest increased blind children’s interest in reading, it is helping to lay the educational foundation these children need as they grow older. The Braille skills they develop will help them in many ways in the years to come. Preparation and review of class notes; using office and professional materials; and maintaining order in personal or financial records, files, videotapes, and other belongings are just a few of the hundreds of other uses they will find for Braille.

Blind people today have a myriad of devices and electronic systems that rely on Braille. Computers with Braille displays, portable notetakers, and computers with Braille keyboards and displays, Braille printers to produce documents, and many similar types of equipment are found at home, in school, and on the job. Without Braille skills blind people cannot take advantage of this technology. The following letter from a teacher of blind children illustrates this point:

I came to work with Nare just this year. She is a bright, motivated young lady. She had retinal detachment while in middle school and was taught grade 1 [uncontracted] Braille at that time. Prior to this year Nare was not familiar with grade 2 [contracted] Braille or technology for persons who are visually impaired and had been completing her high school education aurally. Nare knows she will need to continue to work hard (so much to learn) to be successful in college. This year she has finished grade 2 [contracted] Braille, and she has learned to use a BrailleNote [a portable Braille notetaker] and can now print her work in both Braille and print. She is also just beginning to use a computer with JAWS [a synthetic speech program]. I am so proud of her and thought you would be too! It pains me to think of how long ago she should have learned Braille. She did read much more than got documented and she chose to read some difficult stuff. I’m just proud of her for entering the contest.

Sheryl Smith

The Braille Readers Are Leaders contest has played a vital role in the development of blind children in need of help beyond increasing literacy skills. For example, children who have emigrated from other countries have used our contest to learn both Braille and English. Children who are deaf-blind and children with multiple disabilities who rely on Braille often require additional educational support. These students, who often struggle to keep up with their classmates, have found our contest an exciting way to improve their reading skills and also share in the same reading experiences as their friends.

The Braille Readers Are Leaders contest is clearly a labor of love. The blind children who participate love the reading they do and love the competition. Their parents and teachers love the increased skills and reading ability the children gain. The women of the Rolling Hills Women’s Club love their work on this important project, and we love them and are grateful for their help. The contest volunteers and judges love the awards, prizes, and honors given to the contestants, and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille love sponsoring the contest. Most of all, though, we all love the children, and we love seeing the difference this contest makes in their lives.

We have an outstanding team working together to make our contest the successful program it has become. For twenty years now we have nurtured, educated, cared for, and watched our children as they have grown into successful blind adults. Thanks to everyone involved in the contest, we are looking forward to seeing future generations of blind children achieve the same success and accomplishment as their predecessors. When it comes to the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest, everyone is a winner.

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