Meet Tennessee's Blind Reading Champ, Helping Keep Braille Alive

Mar 6, 2017

Reading isn't usually a competitive sport. But for braille readers, it can be. In fact, a senior from the Tennessee School for the Blind was crowned the state champ last week. The friendly contest is part of a struggle to keep the written language relevant.

A braille reading competition actually looks more like a typing contest.

"Everyone have their paper in their machines?" asks the proctor. "Ok, you may begin."

High school students flip through their packets. Their spread fingers sweep over the pages. In some events, they proofread braille. In this session, they interpret charts and graphs, read related questions and type their answers into mechanical 9-key braille writers.

The old school equipment is kind of like taking a math test without a calculator these days. Digital technology is making braille feel more and more antiquated. But senior Marcus Johnson finds it a necessary skill.

"You cannot use technology for every aspect of education," he says. "So sometimes you just have to have that physical writing there."

To Johnson, there's also something about the written word, even in an alphabet of dots.

Marcus Johnson plans to attend MTSU in the fall, where he will attend normal classes and says braille will not be much help.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

"It's kind of reminiscent," Johnson says. "I've had vision before in my life. I lost my vision while I was young. But it kind of just helps to bring back the feeling of actually having a physical book."

Johnson also happens to be really good — the Tennessee champion for the last few years.

"I am pretty interested in braille, so that might have something to do with it."

But he's an outlier. By recent estimates, just 10 percent of blind children are literate with braille.

"The kids are not wanting to do it because it takes extra time and it's harder," says Joanne Weatherall, a retired teacher from the Tennessee School for the Blind who comes back to be a scorekeeper each year.

Weatherall is blind herself. She says no sighted person would ever think they could forget about learning to write with pencil and paper, just because they type most of the time.

"It should not occur to a blind person to be where they can't write something down," she says. "The only thing I can think is because kids that start out in school very young learning technology, it's very easy for them. It's faster than reading and writing in braille, because that can be very slow and cumbersome."

JoAnne Weatherall is a retired instructor from the Tennessee School for the Blind and an exasperated advocate for braille.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

The national competition that these regional events feed in to is put on by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute. The contest was set up 16 years ago as a fun way to make sure braille didn't fall out of use. But Weatherall says she has to twist the arms of students.

"What to do to get the kids really charged up about braille, I don't know because many of them hate it, which just makes me crazy," she says.

What makes Weatherall grin ear-to-ear are braille-lovers like Marcus Johnson, who plans to attend MTSU in the fall, though he says braille will not be particularly useful in his college classes.