Sonja Steinbach stood quietly at the front of the room as a group of blind students hammered away at their Braille typewriters.
Each stroke on the six-keyed Perkins Braillers was crucial, as the students are vying for a chance to compete among the best young Braille readers in the country at this year’s national Braille Challenge. Thursday marked the first round for a group of about 15 students at the Washington State School for the Blind.
This year, more than 1,000 students across the country are entering the contest, now in its 15th year. The top 60 from around the nation will compete in a daylong round of finals in June in Los Angeles, and the students will find out Monday how they did.
It’s a well-known honor for Steinbach — who’s also blind — after coming in third place at the national level in 2004. Now a math teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind, Steinbach said she hopes another student from Southwest Washington will go to the final round this year.
The best thing about the contest, Steinbach said, was that she got to compete with people who were just like her, and she hopes one of her students gets to share that experience, as well.
“It was a good confidence booster for me to go and realize that, hey, I have some crazy Braille skills,” she said. “And I hope that will be enough for them, too, because having this confidence here kind of carries over into everything that you do.”
It’ll be a tight race this year, Steinbach said. But whatever happens, she’s just glad the competition is still around.
Among this year’s batch of local competitors, one bright, young student stood out: 15-year-old Tabitha Smith. A well-seasoned entrant in the contest, Smith also made her way to the finals several years ago.
Though she didn’t go far in the finals, Smith remembers the elation she felt when she found out she scored among the top 60 in the nation.
“I was on my way to lunch and the secretary told me this, and I just freaked out,” she said. “My mom let me leave school that day. It was a huge deal.”
Pausing for a brief break Thursday before diving into her next round of testing, the sophomore said she felt pretty confident about her performance this time.
“The speed and accuracy was great,” she said. “That was the best I’ve ever done on that.”
The contest is put on by the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization determined to strike down barriers for blind students across the country. Participants are separated into five categories in a range of grades and skill levels.
The competition consists of five testing areas for Braille reading: comprehension, spelling, chart and graph reading, proofreading, and speed and accuracy. For most students, the most challenging part tends to be the speed and accuracy portion, said Sean McCormick, the school’s assistant principal of on-campus programs.
Contestants gather in a quiet classroom to transcribe audio files on their Braille typewriters. They’re judged on spelling, punctuation, spacing, formatting and a number of other aspects, McCormick said.
“Most of the standardized tests that are out there, they’re not normed on Braille readers,” he said. “That just doesn’t make it fair.”
That’s what makes the Braille Challenge so special for the students at the School for the Blind, McCormick said: “This is a completely even playing field for a national contest.”