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Four Of The Country's Best Braille Readers Are Students From Kansas City

Brooke Petro, a freshman at Notre Dame De Sion High School, works on practice tests before the competition starts.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Brooke Petro, a freshman at Notre Dame De Sion High School, works on practice tests before the competition starts.

While sighted kids can participate in competitions like the Scripps National Spelling Bee, these Kansas City students say the Braille Challenge is "something we can take pride in."

Three Kansas City-area students competed Wednesday for their shot at winning the national Braille Challenge.

The competition is the only one of its kind in the United States and Canada for students who are blind or visually impaired. It's considered the Braille equivalent to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

More than a thousand students compete to make one of the 50 slots at the national challenge.

This year, four Kansas students qualified for nationals: Charlie Bethay, 16, of Prairie Village; Brooke Petro, 14, of Leawood; Jude Nickson,9, of Overland Park; and Emrie Wisner, 8, of Olathe. All three placed in the 95th percentile for Braille aptitude.

Jeri Hile, a teacher of the visually impaired in Shawnee Mission School District, has tutored a number of Braille Challenge champions and competitors. She said that making it this far was no easy feat for the three students.

“You’ve got to be good,” Hile said.

The challenge tests students’ proficiency in Braille across five areas: spelling, reading comprehension, proofreading, speed and accuracy, and charts and graphs.

Bethay, a junior at Shawnee Mission East High School, has been competing since he was in the first grade. Despite his years of competing, he said the tests are still a challenge every year.

“There's a lot you have to do. You just need to know your Braille skills really well and be able to do what you need to do in a timely manner but also not mess it up a lot,” Bethay said. “It's the challenge of getting what you need to do done fast and accurately.”

According to Hile, students begin gearing up for the competition shortly after winter break by reviewing and retaking past years’ tests.

The Braille challenge tests students’ proficiency across areas like charts and graphs.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
The Braille Challenge tests students’ proficiency across areas like charts and graphs.

Petro, a freshman at Notre Dame De Sion High School, said despite the tests’ difficulty, she only needs to study for a few hours every week because reading Braille is already a major part of her daily life.

While she didn't make the final round last year, Petro said there’s more behind her drive to compete each year than just winning.

“Like how sighted kids will have spelling bees or they'll have other competitions, we get this. Blind people, we get this for ourselves, this is something we can take pride in,” Petro said.

Another motivator for students to compete is the chance to connect with other visually impaired and blind students from across the country.

The national Braille Challenge is typically held in Los Angeles but is being held remotely this year due to the pandemic.

Local competitors took their test this year at Alphapointe, a Kansas City-based organization that works to empower those with vision loss.

Bethay said that there are benefits to a remote competition, like not having to test in the same room as the dozens of competitors.

Still, he said he’s looking forward to returning to the competition in California when possible.

“It's a place where other visually impaired people can meet each other and kind of understand that there's people like them all over the United States that are doing the same things and it's just a place where we can compete and do things together,” Bethay said.

The competition’s results will be announced July 30.

Correction: Brooke Petro's age was incorrect. Jude Nickson was also mistakenly left off of the list.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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