Baltimore County high school student Sujan Dhakal is quick to talk about her experiences competing in braille literacy competitions over the past decade.
Earlier this year, senior Perry Hall from Eastern Technical High School competed in the regional Maryland Braille Challenge. For some competitors, the challenge is an opportunity to test their skills in Braille, a tactile writing system designed for the visually impaired. Others aim to win and obtain cash and technology prizes.
More veteran participants, like Sujan, compete to forge friendships. Whatever the reasons, the goal of the challenge is to offer a competitive and social outlet to a population that often lacks both.
“It’s a great event for networking,” said Jackie Otwell, Maryland Braille Challenge coordinator. “Often our blind or visually impaired students are isolated. They may be the only student in their school. They may be the only student in their county. And during this event, students can come together, talk and sympathize. »
Now in its 13th year, the Maryland Braille Challenge is hosted annually by the Maryland School for the Blind and the Maryland State Department of Education. Students are tested on reading comprehension, spelling, reading charts and graphs, proofreading, speed and accuracy.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the regionals were a piece of cake. Because in the last 11 years that I have taken the Braille challenge, only once have I not placed first or second in the regionals,” said 17-year-old Sujan, who is visually impaired.
Only the top 10 students in each of the five competition categories advance to the national round, which is two days of competition, camaraderie and fun, Otwell said.
More than 800 students, grades 1 to 12, competed in regional competitions from January to March across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in hopes of qualifying for the top 50 spots at the national championships.
Sujan was the only student from the area to qualify for nationals this year. He placed first at regionals and scored in the top 10 among college division entrants for his age group. This earned him a ticket to the National Braille Challenge, held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in June.
“My dad is always thrilled when I do it. He’s more excited than me because I see competition less as real competition, more as a place to talk to people and crack more bad jokes,” he said. said “The environment there is really great for talking to people, even if you don’t really feel like it.”
Braille Challenges are organized and sponsored by the Braille Institute of America and are the only academic competitions in the United States and Canada for students who are blind or visually impaired.
The organization developed the Braille Challenge in 2000 to motivate students to practice and perfect their Braille skills.
Events went virtual when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Otwell said, but the national competition returned in person this year. Otwell, who was invited to be emcee at this year’s awards ceremony, said the national braille challenge is similar to regional competitions but is 10 times more intense.
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“I think it re-energized everyone to get back together and reinvigorate everyone’s love and enthusiasm for braille,” Otwell said. “It’s a real team experience, and it takes a whole village.”
It was Sujan’s fifth appearance on the national stage. Unfortunately, he didn’t place again this year and final results are usually mailed out a month or two after the competition, Sujan said.
He was aiming for third place at his level this year because his competitors are “really good”, he said. Nathan Deeds of Williamsburg, Iowa won first, Charlie Bethay of Prairie Village, Kansas received second and Julia LaGrand of Grand Rapids, Michigan received third.
“We had a whole lineup prepared to see who would get first, second or third. We always do that,” he said. “We agreed that the first two places were already taken. And it was basically the rest of us fighting for third place.
However, Sujan said that after years of competition, he realized that victory is not the goal of these challenges, but rather the camaraderie, allowing him to simply enjoy the events, he said. declared.
“I will say this to anyone who really wants to win. You’re going to want to win like it’s your life. But in the end, the main part of the competition is talking to people, interacting with them,” he said. “So if you win, great. If you don’t, then that’s OK too. Don’t focus on winning and focus more on the people there.
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which features notable people from the Baltimore area who are impacting our diverse communities. If you would like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a brief description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Editor Kamau High at [email protected].