Austin 2nd grader masters Braille as he prepares for competition


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A visually impaired Austin student is preparing for a national competition next month to put his Braille reading and writing skills to the test.

Leo DeSantis, a 2nd grader at Doss Elementary School, has been learning Braille since he was in preschool. Earlier this year he competed in a regional Braille competition in central Texas and scored in the top ten across the U.S. and Canada for his age group, qualifying him for the National Braille Challenge in Los Angeles on June 15 and 16.

He’s one of two Texans to make the finals. Just 50 students total will compete across five different age groups.

“Now I’m just trying to get my fluency up,” Leo said on a recent Wednesday during a practice session with his vision teacher, Kallie Kirkland.

He’s learning a skill that far too many visually impaired students and adults alike don’t know. The National Federation of the Blind found in a 2009 study that just 10 percent of visually impaired adults can read Braille and the same percentage of students are actively learning it.

The study calls it a “crisis” because as many as 50 percent blind high school students drop out and over 70 percent of blind adults are unemployed.

The 2nd-grader uses a device similar to a laptop to work on his writing skills. “It translates my things into print,” he explained.

Instead of a standard keyboard, the device features eight large buttons that allow Leo to type out the dot combinations that make up the Braille alphabet. The computer can also read back what he’s written, spell-check his work, and function as a Braille e-reader, raising and lowering dot clusters electronically.

“It does make my life easier,” Leo said, “because I can’t use print.”

Leo lost his sight when he was 2, Kirkland said. He underwent surgery to treat a type of eye cancer called retinoblastoma, and though he can still recall and make out the shapes of letters on good days, Kirkland said, Braille is his window into a freedom he wouldn’t have otherwise.

“He’s initiating a lot of his own learning and he’s going to take it wherever he wants to, as far as he can go, as far as he wants to go,” Kirkland said.

In a few weeks, he’ll go to L.A. to compete with nine others around his age. The Braille Challenge consists of several Braille-based exercises, including spelling, reading comprehension and proofreading, but instead of the computer, Leo will have to use a heavy typewriter-like Brailler (without spell-check) to complete the challenge.

He’s pretty confident about the spelling portion, he said, but he’ll be working on his reading comprehension before the competition.

Leo was cautious when asked how he thinks he’ll do overall in L.A. After a little positivity from his teacher, he conceded.

“Maybe I’ll win,” he said.

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