Hundreds of Iowa high school wrestling fans gathered at Wells Fargo Arena this month to cheer on their favorite wrestlers during the Iowa High School Wrestling Championships.
Unbeknownst to many, there is another Iowa championship this month that attracts a special group of participants with a very unique ability. On February 25, visually impaired students will convene at the Iowa Department for the Blind to compete in the Iowa Braille Challenge.
Sponsored by the Department for the Blind and the Iowa Braille School, the Iowa Braille Challenge is an event that not only gives blind and visually impaired students an opportunity to demonstrate their skills, it also gives them a chance to experience camaraderie and fellowship.
“Most of those kids (competing in the Braille Challenge) are the only ones in their school that are blind,” says Pat Nagel-Wilson, an itinerant vision teacher. “It’s a chance for them to get together with other kids like them. They’re always excited when (the Braille Challenge) comes.”
While general education students learn to read and write using letters and words, many blind and visually impaired students are literate in the Braille system, a series of raised dots that form letters, words and numbers that are read through touch.
Nagel-Wilson is one of 11 vision teachers in the Heartland AEA area commissioned by the Statewide System for Vision Services that help visually impaired students learn the Braille system and practice other skills essential for their education.
“We try to work with students four days a week for at least an hour,” says Nagel-Wilson. “We work on different coding and equipment and work with the student’s associate as they are with them for most of the day.”
Nagel-Wilson and her students prepare for the Braille Challenge using last year’s test. However, after many years of practice, most of what’s tested in the Challenge are skills students have mastered through working with their vision teachers.
During the Challenge, students are tested on their reading speed and comprehension, spelling/typing accuracy, proofreading skills and chart and graph reading. Students are grouped by grade levels so they compete among their peers.
“When students get into fifth grade and up, they are tested on dictation,” says Nagel-Wilson. “The student listens to a story and has to type what they hear. It’s a little harder, and we practice that part a little more than the others to prepare for the Challenge.”
Winners of the Iowa Braille Challenge qualify to compete in the National Braille Challenge held in Los Angeles, and Heartland AEA vision teachers and their students are no strangers to the national competition! Last year four students from Iowa competed in the National Braille Challenge and two came home with first and second places in their group level. Lauren Thomson of Earlham, who works with vision teacher Chris Short, won first place in the sophomore group (grades 5 and 6), and Mason Armstrong of Carlisle, who works with Nagel-Wilson, won second (also in the sophomore group).
“It was really fun, exciting, scary – a lot of things,” says Thomson who’s win was her second time placing in the national competition.
“It’s an honor to go to the national challenge and for us to win first and second is a big deal,” says Nagel-Wilson.
With national titles in their back pockets, Thomson and Armstrong are looking forward to this year’s round of competitions. When asked if he is going to compete in this year’s Iowa Braille Challenge, Armstrong exclaimed, “Yes, definitely!”