June 29, 2001

Local Girl Has National Braille Challenge At Her Fingertips

By Yvette tenBerge

An excited group of elementary and middle school students fills the morning of this Tuesday, June 26 with lively chatter during their art class. While the majority of students carve their names into the clay hands that each of them has just made, others put the finishing touches on a crooked finger or a flattened palm. Amidst the clatter and rush of bodies, Bianca Samaniego waits patiently in her chair.

Bianca Samaniego displays her latest art project.

Bianca smiles with satisfaction as her teacher compliments her warmly on her project. Her work is quite good, but what makes this impromptu art show so different is that none of the young artists present on this day will ever get to actually see their creations. Bianca, as well as all of her others classmates, is blind.

Due to an underdevelopment of the retina called retinopathy of prematurity, this honor student, promising athlete and talented pianist and violinist has been blind since birth. While many might consider this condition a rather overwhelming handicap, Bianca has not allowed it to slow her down. Those who know the determined 11 year-old are not surprised by the level of her performance, or by her willingness to try activities like surfing, judo and skiing. Many of those who meet her for the first time, though, cannot help but be impressed.

Since the majority of blind and visually impaired children are now mainstreamed into public schools, Bianca is all too familiar with people's surprised reactions to her. "I guess some people may think we don't know how to do anything because we are blind. They might think we just stay home, and we don't do the things that they do. I think that they are really wrong," says Bianca, describing the things that blind people often do better than those with regular vision. "We can sit in the dark, and we can read faster than them. It took me one and a half days to read the first Harry Potter book."

To this list, Bianca adds an impressive stack of her own skills and accomplishments. Cooly adept in each, her natural talent in these areas is obvious; however, as with many students who excel, she has also had good training.

Although the quality of the artwork created in this class could rival the work produced in the most elite of San Diego private schools, the venue in which Bianca works, although beautiful, is somewhat more humble, and it is entirely free. This is the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization based in La Jolla that provides free educational training programs for people who have experienced severe sight loss or blindness, and this is just one of its numerous extracurricular courses.

Thanks to the Braille Institute's goal of helping their students live independent and fulfilling lives and to Bianca's own continuous quest for knowledge, she will be the only San Diegan to compete in this Saturday's National Braille Challenge.

Bianca walks with her friend Laura, another student at the Braille Institute.

This academic contest, which aims to encourage visually impaired and blind youth to improve their ability to read and write in Braille, brings together contestants from all over the nation. These students, who range from six to 19 years-old, have prepared themselves to compete in six different categories, including Braille speed and accuracy, chart and graph reading, reading comprehension, Braille spelling, proofreading and word searching.

Although Bianca was a competitor in last year's event, it appears that experience does not always calm pre-competition jitters. "When you are going to compete, you may feel nervous because you are not sure what they will test you on. You also might feel anxious about the prizes," says Bianca, giggling and pushing her brown, chin length hair away from her face. While many these days seem hung up on winning, Bianca is refreshingly free of this attitude. She admits that, many times, the "good" prizes, like CD players and music boxes, go to second place, and so she would rather not always win first place.

While this weekend's Challenge specifically targets and celebrates the skills of blind and visually impaired youth, the Braille Institute, itself, caters to students of all ages. Contrary to what many might expect, only seven percent of those who use the Institute's services are under the age of 19. In fact, of the 700 people who are currently enrolled in one or more of the Institute's programs, the majority are over the age of 64.

Jay Hatfield, Assistant Regional Director for the Braille Institute's San Diego site, explains the reason for this. "As people are living longer, there are eye diseases that are prevalent with advancing age. One of these, Macular Degeneration, is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. One in six people over the age of 65 have some form of this disease," says Mr. Hatfield, sharing statistics that he learned at a recent Macular Degeneration seminar. "One in two people over the age of 85 will be affected, and all of us will get it if we live long enough."

Mr. Hatfield continues to list the numerous activities that the Braille Institute makes available to visually impaired San Diegans. These include on-site computer, exercise, art and assisted living classes, community outreach programs such as Braille classes taught at senior centers throughout San Diego County, and a talking book program that mails more than two tons of books each day to borrowers.

"We are one of the best kept secrets out there, and we do not want to be," says Mr. Hatfield, clasping his hands together and glancing around the immaculate, mission-style facility. "We can help anyone out there whose vision is no longer improved by glasses. They are eligible to use our services, free of charge."

Admission to the National Braille Challenge is free. The Saturday, June 30 contest runs from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It will be held at the Braille Institute, 4555 Executive Drive. For more information call: (858) 452-1111 or visit their website at: www.Brailleinstitute.org.

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