Austinite competes in remote 2020 Braille Challenge Finals

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — “Keep calm and braille on.”

That’s the new motto for the Braille Challenge Finals, which an Austin boy will soon compete in, Sergio Oliva said in a press release.

(Courtesy: Braille Institute)

Oliva is the associate vice president for the Braille Institute’s national and youth programs. He and others have had to re-imagine the 2020 finals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They found a way to carry on and accommodate by bringing it to the students, remotely, in each finalist’s hometowns.

“Rather than having students and families come to us, we’re taking [finals] directly to them,” Oliva said. “The digital experience we created captures the essence of the two-day event and celebration, and effectively champions braille literacy.”

Traditionally, the institute has finalists compete in-person in Los Angeles. Instead, it will livestream both the testing and the award ceremony. Closing ceremonies will be livestreamed on Braille Institute’s YouTube channel on July 25.

The finalists

For 10-year-old Leo DeSantis, a visually impaired student from Austin, his life is “pretty normal.” That’s how he sees it, and that’s how he approaches whatever comes his way.

“Sometimes things are hard, but normally we can figure them out and then we… figure them out.”

He applies this same mental attitude to competing. He qualified as a finalist to compete in the July 2020 Braille Challenge Finals. This is the second time he’s achieved such a feat. The freshman is one of the 50 selected from around the world — each placed into five categories based on their age:

  • Apprentice
  • Freshman
  • Sophomore
  • Junior Varsity
  • Varsity

He thinks it’s “pretty cool” to be included as a finalist again. He’s been practicing braille for awhile.

“I never thought I’d be able to do the national thing once, and then after I did it once, I never thought I’d be able to do it twice,” DeSantis said. “It is nice because there aren’t many competitions for blind and visually impaired people…. Some things cannot be made accessible, but this is one of the things that is designed [for us].

For DeSantis, competing remotely is not completely out of the normal.

“I am pretty used to doing the remote stuff. There was a lot of remote stuff during school with my vision teacher and [Orientation & Mobility] (O&M) teacher, and a lot of other stuff — I’ve done a lot of virtual camps… but it definitely will be different.”

The academic competition motivates blind and visually impaired students to sharpen and practice their braille literacy skills. Competitors are tested on:

  • Charts and graphs
  • Proofreading
  • Reading comprehension
  • Speed and accuracy
  • Spelling

“My favorite test is probably proofreading because I kinda like spelling and grammar, and also, I think my favorite part of the braille challenge is… the reading comprehension. Some of it is non-fiction, so sometimes you learn cool stuff,” DeSantis said.

Although DeSantis competes using braille, it’s more than a game to the blind and visually impaired.

“Braille is very important because braille is what I read. Braille for me is like print to you… Without braille, I’d have to use large print or something that’s much harder to read,” DeSantis said. “I use braille for reading books if I’m not listening to them, for writing [via a Perkins Brailler]… I also write braille on my computer, I use the regular keyboard,” among other online technology.

Advancements that mean a lot to the community.

“Over the past 10 years, a lot of websites [have been] inaccessible… I definitely think that’s a good thing. Like a lot more websites, you’re seeing they got like an accessibility page and they’ve got accessibility settings,” DeSantis said.

Finalists have a window from today until Sunday to do their testing called “Testing Week,” in which they choose a date and time that’s best for them. DeSantis takes his tomorrow, July 7 at 10 a.m. CT. Winners will be announced on July 31. The full list of finalists can be found on Braille Institute’s website, including more information and announcements. People can also leave a message of support for each competitor.

Screenshot from website (Courtesy: Braille Institute)

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