Saturday, June 20, 2009

Virginia teen competes as a top-ranked blind student at National Braille Challenge

From the Midlothian Exchange in Virginia:

Legally blind since birth, Jennifer Shields (pictured) has had to overcome many obstacles throughout her life. Yet, the 15-year-old girl has never once let her disability get in the way of her success.

Earlier this year, Shields was selected from more than 600 of the top-ranked blind and visually-impaired students from across the United States and Canada to compete in the 9th annual National Braille Challenge, an all-volunteer event in California sponsored by the Braille Institute of America.

Although previously a local event, the competition has grown into a national phenomenon in recent years, said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge. While the event was originally created to motivate blind students to continue their studies of Braille, it also now hopes to raise awareness for blind literacy as well.

“Since sighted communities don’t always see the importance of Braille, having a high profile contest gives us an opportunity to talk about it and allows the community to be involved,” Niebrugge explained.

After taking several preliminary tests, Shields was selected, along with 59 other blind students from ages 3 to 19, to compete in the event, which will be held in Los Angles on Saturday, June 20. Each contestant will compete in five categories, all designed to reflect the academic skills necessary for the future success and independence. These categories include chart and graph reading, Braille spelling, reading comprehension, proofreading, and Braille speed and accuracy.

Shields, who started learning to read Braille at age 3, is excited for the competition and the mission it’s striving to achieve.

“I hope the Braille Challenge will make people more aware of just how important it is for everyone to be able to read and write,” Shields said. She enjoys many novels and authors J.K Rowling and Nicholas Sparks. For most readers, the hard cover 759 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows remains a daunting task, but for Shields, she devours the 10 Braille volumes that replicate the book.

Yet, Braille reading is only one of the many activities Shields enjoys. She also spends her time swimming and focusing on her creative writing, a talent she hopes to pursue in the future. Recently, Shields was honored at the annual Writing Extravaganza in Richmond for her poem entitled, “Chestnut Tree.”

“The poem is really about how life changes,” she said, “and how things you once had in your childhood are still important to you in later years.”

Earlier this month, Shields completed her first year at Clover Hill High School* and demonstrated that she is just as capable of meeting and surpassing any academic challenges as her sighted classmates. Using several adaptive devices such as a speech recognition program and a Braille note taker, Shields excels academically.

“We’ve always encouraged Jennifer to just do the best that she can do,” said Charles Shields, Jennifer’s dad. “And she’s done that, taking all advanced classes and basically doing them with her eyes shut.”

After high school, Shields plans to attend college and continue her poetry, as well as pursue a career in Journalism.

“I’d really like to write children’s books,” Shields said, adding that by doing so, she would be able to help children learn to read, a skill she believes is important to learn at a young age.

Shields will be competing against 11 other people in her age group during the competition. Every contestant will receive a trophy for their participation, and the first- through third-place winners in each age group will receive a savings bond whose amount may range from $500 to $5,000. In addition, first-place winners will receive a Pac Mate, a portable PC device with a Braille display.

Shields will be accompanied by her mother Janet and vision teacher Bonita Campbell during her trip to Los Angeles; and while she hopes to succeed in the competition, she also hopes to raise awareness for blind individuals and their role in their communities.

“I want people to understand that blind people can do everything any normal person can do,” she said. “Just in a different way.”