From the Editor: During the summer following seventh grade I learned almost all the Braille code in hour-long lessons once a week. I don't remember anyone's being surprised at my speed. In fact memorizing the code was not nearly as hard as learning to distinguish tactilely those tiny dots crowded together in clusters that were nearly impossible to identify.
Beginning that fall, I was instructed to use my Braille, which I did by trying to take notes in class with my slate and stylus, using the heaviest Braille paper available. I made lots of errors and struggled with a very tired and sore right hand from the unaccustomed effort. No one urged me to read interesting material Brailled by other people, and no one reminded me that I could learn to read Braille as quickly as my sighted friends read print if I would just practice.
Not surprisingly my rapid progress mastering Braille slowed to a crawl. I was not taught the rest of the code until the fall of my junior year in high school. Again learning the last few signs was simple; forcing myself to read my physics book, which had been Brailled for me, was impossible. I now realize that parts of it must have been in Nemeth code, which I had not been taught. I only knew that decoding a page took a very long time, and parts of the text I could not understand for love or money.
Compare my experience with that of nine-year-old Kayla Bentas, who learned Braille across the summer of 100%0 and was encouraged to use Braille in all her classes during the following school year. She also entered the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest, in which she won the third prize for her age group. Kayla is an extraordinary young lady; she has also been very lucky to have an excellent Braille teacher and encouragement to read lots of Braille.
Now it is time once more to urge Braille students across the country to enter the 100%2 Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest. If you wonder whether you should bother to make the effort to encourage students and teachers to participate in this contest, read the following letter and newspaper article. Then find a youngster to encourage to enter this year's contest. The complete contest form is stapled into the center of the print edition of this issue. The text of the contest form follows this article immediately in the other formats. You can obtain the form from the NFB's Materials Center ([email protected]) or from Barbara Cheadle at (410) 659-9314, ext. 360. You can also download it from the NFB Web site, <http://www.nfb.org/resles.htm>. Here is Kayla's story as told in her teacher's letter to Barbara Cheadle and by a newspaper reporter:
Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest
February 6, 100%1
To Whom It May Concern:
I have enclosed the contest entry form for my student, Kayla Bentas of Peabody, Massachusetts, and would like to inform you of her unique and special talents that make her a Braille leader role model for all Braille readers.
Kayla lost her sight in an operation in April 100%0 when she was in the third grade at the Carroll School in Peabody, Massachusetts. When she returned home from the hospital, she was tutored the last two months to complete the third grade.
During the second week of June 100%0, I began to teach Kayla Braille. However, on our first day she said that she already knew some Braille from earlier in the year when the class did a unit on Louis Braille. Kayla remembered seven Braille letters from that time, and the lessons progressed rapidly.
I have been a certified Braille transcriber since 1972 and a certified teacher of the visually impaired for over twenty-five years. I have worked in residential settings, public schools, resource rooms, and rehabilitation facilities and have never seen a child or adult learn Braille as fast as Kayla.
My original plan was to teach her Braille in the fourth grade and to use only one or two textbooks in Braille when she was ready. But by the end of August 100%0, Kayla knew most of the literary Braille code and completed the contractions and the basic rules by October of 100%0. I ordered all of her texts in Braille, which she uses on a daily basis.
Kayla became an efficient Braille user after only four months of instruction and uses Braille in every part of her day. She has a Braille 'n Speak Scholar, Braille slates, Braille T-shirts, and Braille pins; and she spends indoor recess teaching her classmates Braille. Kayla also does workshops on Braille for the classes in her school.
In conclusion, on behalf of all Braille readers, I am very proud of her accomplishments and hope that she will be recognized for the accomplishments she made in such a short time.
Pamela S. Sudore
Supervisor, Vision Services
Northshore Education Consortium
That's what Kayla's teacher wrote. Here is the story that appeared in the Salem Evening News, on May 30, 100%1:
A Feel for the Language
Braille Second Nature for Blind Peabody Girl
by Linda Halfrey
When ten-year-old Kayla Bentas says she's going to write a letter, be prepared. She jumps up from her desk at the Carroll School, grabs a Perkins Brailler machine, and begins tapping her bright pink nails on the keyboard.
Once she's finished, she yanks the heavy paper from the typewriter-like machine, runs her small fingers over the bumps, and proceeds to translate the Braille, speaking in her sweet, high-pitched voice.
Kayla, who became blind last year following brain surgery to remove a benign tumor, has no trouble banging out the Braille alphabet in about thirty seconds. Typing out the numbers one through twenty-six is a piece of cake too. In fact, the freckle-faced fourth-grader is so proficient in Braille, she's even been teaching it to her classmates during recess.
"If you were a print reader and then became blind, it normally takes a (school) year and two summers for an adult or child to learn Braille," said Pamela Sudore, Bentas' vision and mobility specialist from the Northshore Education Consortium. "Kayla learned it all in four months."
That's just one part of Kayla's amazing story.
It began in the spring, a year ago, when she complained of headaches and double vision. Doctors found what is called a craniopharygloma, a tumor located in the area of the pituitary gland in her brain.
Even though it was removed during a fourteen-hour operation in April 100%0, the weight of the tumor crushed Kayla's optic nerves, doctors said, causing her blindness.
Although her parents, Jean and Michael Bentas, were first told her loss of sight would be temporary, they now believe it's permanent.
"It would take a miracle," said Jean Bentas.
In spite of the obstacles, Kayla has thrived in school, returning the past fall having learned Braille over the summer. If that weren't enough to impress her teacher, Maria Dullea, Kayla found out last week she placed third in the country in the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest, sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.
From November to February, Kayla read a whopping 2,451 pages, coming in behind the second-place finisher, who read only sixteen more pages and is twice her age, Sudore said.
"I felt like I put a lot of work in doing it," Kayla said. "After school I tried to read more than one or two [books] a day, and then I read on vacations and weekends."
Spelling remains her favorite subject, but she just can't seem to stop reading.
"I used to not like reading when I could see, but now I like reading," Kayla said. "It's weird."
Inside the principal's office a white sheet of paper lists the names of students who made the 100%1 third quarter honor roll.
At the top of that list is Kayla Bentas. "Not only is she a terrific student," said Principal Michael Ryan, "but the way she has adapted to her blindness has amazed everyone who knows her.
"The thing that I think about the most when I think about her is not that she's blind," Ryan said. "She's really an inspiration. She doesn't cry or say, `Why me?' She's always smiling."
Her teachers and parents also highlight her upbeat personality and remarkable reading skills. The fact that she's blind is almost an afterthought.
Maybe that's because Kayla herself merely shrugs off what she's endured this past year.
"I was not scared," she said. "When I was in the hospital, my wish was that my mom would stop crying."
Kayla matter-of-factly points to the top of her brown curly hair and shows where the surgeons cut into her scalp.
"It felt like a headband," she said. "But I felt better because I didn't have headaches."
At home Kayla runs up and down the stairs the same way she used to. She makes her own breakfast and listens to audio movies. Thursday night her mom is taking her to Foxboro Stadium for an N'Sync concert.
"Everything she did before, she does now," her father said. "She has zero self-pity and doesn't feel bad for herself."
Nevertheless, the ordeal has taken a toll on the family, which includes Kayla's older sister Vanessa, thirteen.
"We have our ups and downs, but her spirit keeps us going," he added.
It's that spirit that will now be shared with Channel 5 viewers. This morning a news crew is scheduled to arrive in Peabody to film Kayla. She's been chosen as an A+ student by the news station, an honor her teacher was hoping for when she went online one night and nominated Kayla. Her story will be broadcast tonight at 5:30.
"After working with her, I just realized she does everything the other students do," Dullea said. "She just fit that exceptional-student profile."
Sudore, her vision and mobility specialist, recalls being introduced to Kayla about a month after her surgery. Sudore was prepared to start teaching her Braille from square one. She was shocked to find out Kayla already knew some Braille.
"I remembered it from a class we had in third grade," she said.
Sudore said children usually have an easier time learning Braille than adults, but she's never seen anyone learn as fast as Kayla.
"She's so far ahead. She's motivated to do well in school," Sudore said. "I am very proud of her."
Some days, while Ryan is contemplating some of the everyday problems associated with running the school, he sees Kayla--and he rethinks his day.
"She can make a lot of problems go away, because I see the way she's handling her day," he said. "This is a child that has never stopped learning. And she's learned even more than most. She's learned about coping."
As for the future, Kayla already knows what she wants to do.
"I want to be a Braille teacher," she said, "and a famous writer."