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Southwestern student finishes first in Braille Challenge

Southwestern Elementary student Emma Stamper finished first place in the apprentice division of the Braille Institute’s Braille Challenge.

The Braille Institute, a network of schools across the country, was founded in 1919 by J. Robert Atkinson in order to increase the braille literacy rate.

The Braille Challenge is an academic contest hosted by the institute to “encourage blind youngsters to practice their braille skills,” according to its website. This year’s challenge celebrated the 20th anniversary of the competition and was the first remote challenge due to COVID-19.

Stamper said her challenge was like a timed test that had three three parts: spelling, comprehension, and proofreading. She said the proofreading was her favorite.

“Actually, in school I have a helper who will translate stuff I write in braille so we can take it to my teacher,” she said. “Sometimes she will make a mistake in braille – because sometimes she will have to write the work up for me – and so when she makes a mistake I’ll say ‘what’s this supposed to mean?’ and she’ll take a look at it and find out that I caught one of her mistakes.”

Her “helper,” Judy Van-Nes (Emma’s visual aid), does not make mistakes very often, Stamper added.

The Challenge is broken up into different divisions based on the ages of its competitors. Stamper began in the apprentice division’s regional competition as a second grader, but finished second grade prior to the nationals competition during the week of July 6.

This is actually the second year Stamper competed in the apprentice division of the Braille Challenge. Stamper said she did better this year than last year because last year she ran out of time prior to completing the test and this year she completed the test with time to spare.

“On spelling, I got it done five seconds early and I think on comprehension I think there were three or two,” she said.

Stamper’s teacher, Marya Zipoff (a traveling Teacher of the Visually Impaired) said Stamper’s literacy has improved quite a bit from last year.

“She is just amazing,” Zipoff said. “Her speed has picked up. Her ability to read larger words has picked up.”

This year the challenge was done remotely, meaning instead of traveling to the Braille Institute in California to do the challenge, Stamper took the test at her school, Southwestern Elementary. Zipoff proctored the test.

“Since they couldn’t fly people into California to do it because of the pandemic, they asked different people who had experience in braille to proctor the exam,” she said. “The Braille Institute in California did remote training for all the teachers who would proctor.”

“After I completed the training, we got Emma’s packet and met at Southwestern to do the exam,” she added.

The now-third grader also received an excellence in spelling award.

“Even though I thought spelling was the hardest, I was the best speller,” she said.

For the spelling test, Zipoff would speak words for Stamper to type out in braille. She would spell it in contracted and uncontracted braille. Contracted braille is a shortened version of braille words, which take up less space.

“I like to compare it to texting,” Tina Stamper, Emma’s mom, said. “So instead of spelling ‘laugh out loud,’ the contracted would be ‘lol.’”

The Braille Institute livestreamed the awards ceremony on YouTube, so Emma was in her living room when she found out she won.

“I screamed,” she said. She also called her teachers and her grandma.

Zipoff wasn’t able to watch the livestream because she was driving, but she said Van-Nes was messaging her updates throughout the ceremony. Zipoff said she was elated when she found out Emma won.

“Oh my gosh, I was so happy and so proud of that girl because she has worked really hard over the summer,” she said. “She is a student everyday, not just school days.”

Emma hasn’t received her prizes yet. She received a trophy, a Braille Note Plus, some money, and other prizes she doesn’t know about.

“Some of it will be a surprise,” Tina said, to which Emma nodded.

Emma plans to compete again next year. Next year, she will be in the “Freshman Division,” meaning she will have more than three challenges to complete.

“Emma inspires all of us to do even better because she is just amazing,” Zipoff said. “She learns so quickly, she remembers so much.”

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