American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)       BRAILLE

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Braille Is about Touching

by Robert Gardner

Reprinted from the Illinois Independent, Summer 2017

Robert Gardner reading Braille.From the Editor: When the NOPBC and NFB discontinued the national Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest in 2012, a gap was created in the lives of students and teachers across the country. In this article Robert Gardner explains how states in the Great Lakes region have worked together to keep the contest alive, and he ponders the importance of the contest as a means of developing future leaders.

"How do we get more young people involved?" "We need more youth to keep our organization going!" Whether you're active in your church, Kiwanis, or a local book club, undoubtedly you have heard these sentiments. We in the National Federation of the Blind are no exception. Often we express these concerns in our local chapters and state affiliates.

Hang onto that thought, and let's switch gears. Let's talk about Braille for a moment. Specifically, let's discuss Braille and blind children.

For twenty-nine years the National Federation of the Blind held an annual contest called Braille Readers Are Leaders (BRAL) for students in grades K-12. In 2012 the national contest was discontinued. The following year the NFB of Illinois decided to organize its own statewide contest, known as Illinois Braille Readers Are Leaders, or iBRAL. iBRAL turned out to be a great success, with more than thirty kids taking part that first year.

The Illinois contest was patterned after the former national contest, though the reading period was somewhat shorter. Each contestant was placed in one of five groups according to grade: K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-8, or 9-12. The objective was for a contestant to read the most Braille pages in his or her category. Cash prizes were awarded to the top three readers in each group, and every entrant received a complimentary "goodie bag" of Braille-related gifts. Gifts included such items as slates and styluses, Braille calendars, Braille rulers, and gift certificates from Seedlings and National Braille Press.

In 2015 the iBRAL contest was expanded to include Minnesota. iBRAL became LOL 2, for Land o' Lincoln and Land o' Lakes. Then, for the 2016-17 contest, the NFB of Illinois invited all of the eight states bordering the Great Lakes to get involved. As one might guess, the contest is now called the Great Lakes BRAL Contest for Kids. It isn't an overly imaginative name, but it's certainly descriptive. Here's a question for you: can you name the eight states that touch one or more of the Great Lakes? If not, read on for the answer.

It's easy to see the primary objective of this contest—to promote the reading of Braille at a young age. In particular the contest aims to promote the reading of Braille for recreation. If a child reads Braille for fun, Braille will become a natural part of his or her life at school and at home. Later Braille will be a tool in his or her career. We all know that learning and using Braille at an early age results in greater Braille fluency later in life.

We also see many immediate benefits of our BRAL contest. After the close of the contest one teacher of the visually impaired wrote,

As I was walking into my school building last week, your email came through, and I was excited to share with my students that their prizes were on the way. When I got to Ava's classroom, there she was, opening her treats already! Both Shane and Ava were very excited to get their packages (especially at school in front of their peers!).

They are thrilled with the coupons to select and buy Braille books. Shane has to complete some end-of-the-quarter testing. Then I am going to let him make the call to redeem his free book as a reward. Always have to push those independence skills!

We took a photo of both students with their rewards. The front office is going to feature it on the school web page and maybe get some district recognition, too. It was such a positive experience that we all look forward to doing it again next year. Thanks for all the work you did to make this a reality. I for one appreciate your efforts!

The contest can generate a surprising amount of interest—and a surprising amount of competitiveness—among the kids who take part. One mother wrote at the end of the recent contest, "Attached is Matthew's reading log. I don't think he slept much over the last couple of weeks. I kept finding him awake in the middle of the night reading some more. Thanks!"

After being notified that her daughter was a winner in her grade category, another mother wrote, "Thank you so much! Mariam is thrilled! She worked so hard on doing extra reading. Thank you for the program. It really encouraged her to have some fun reading and not view it just as work."

It's not unusual for some children to read three thousand pages or more during the seven weeks of the contest. In the 2016-17 competition, Anthony Spears, a seventh grader from Illinois, read more pages than any other contestant. Anthony, who goes by L.T., read an amazing 4,015 Braille pages! He wrote to us,

"Thank you for letting me be in the BRAL contest this year. I like the challenge of reading against other students. Thank you for inviting me to the state convention. I will talk to my parents about it. I hope I can come, and it would be a pleasure meeting all of you, too."

Now let's get back to our original question. How can we, the NFB, attract more young people to our organization? The answers to that question are many, complex, and sometimes debatable. But one thing has become apparent to those within the NFB of Illinois who have organized and administered these BRAL contests. The vast majority of children entering the contest have had no previous connection with the National Federation of the Blind. In other words, the BRAL contest is their first exposure to the NFB.

As the Great Lakes BRAL Contest for Kids continues, we see ourselves reaching children on two levels. We are encouraging them to read Braille and to increase their Braille skills. We are also introducing them to an organization, the National Federation of the Blind, that can benefit them in countless ways. Without really planning to do so, we have opened new horizons for blind kids by sparking their interest in a Braille reading contest. If not now, maybe later, maybe when they become adults, these children will remember the National Federation of the Blind.

Were you able to name the eight states bordering the Great Lakes? Going from west to east, they are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.

For reference the excerpt above about Matthew was from his mother, Karen Leinart of Illinois. The words about Mariam were written by her mother, Colleen Samura of New York. The wonderful letter about Ava and Shane came from Sherry Kennedy, a TVI in Ohio.

In conclusion, the administrator of the Great Lakes BRAL contest, Deborah Kent Stein, says,

Thanks to all who were involved in the Great Lakes Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest this past year. It was an adventure putting together a coalition of eight states to participate in the contest. But all the work was worth it when you learn that more than 16,000 Braille pages were read by the kids altogether. Congratulations to every one of the contestants!

For further information about the contest, visit

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