OLMS student wins national braille challenge

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published July 8, 2014

 Griffin Miller, of West Bloomfield, receives a trophy for winning the sophomore category of the national Braille Challenge from, left, Anita Wright, executive director of the Braille Institute; right, Atticus Shaffer, actor from the ABC sitcom “The Middle”; and far right, Robert Kovacik, NBC4 Los Angeles anchor and reporter.

Griffin Miller, of West Bloomfield, receives a trophy for winning the sophomore category of the national Braille Challenge from, left, Anita Wright, executive director of the Braille Institute; right, Atticus Shaffer, actor from the ABC sitcom “The Middle”; and far right, Robert Kovacik, NBC4 Los Angeles anchor and reporter.

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WEST BLOOMFIELD —  Shortly after Rachel Miller’s son Griffin was born, she noticed he wasn’t tracking or looking at people’s faces.

And at 3- to 4-months old, Griffin — now 12 — was diagnosed with Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a retinal degenerative disease.

Though there was no family history of LCA, Rachel said the doctors told her and her husband, Jeff, that a spontaneous mutation caused Griffin’s receptors to not develop. He can, however, make out shadows and has light perception.

Griffin was introduced to braille immediately, and he knew his braille alphabet before he went to preschool, Rachel said. As a 10-year braille reader, Griffin, who currently attends Orchard Lake Middle School, showcased his language skills by competing among the top 60 blind students from the U.S. and Canada in the Braille Institute of America’s 14th annual National Braille Challenge — a braille literacy competition for blind and visually impaired students — in Los Angeles June 21.

Griffin won the sophomore category, but this isn’t the first time he has been a finalist. He won his first year as a second-grader, placed third in third grade and second in fourth grade, he said.

“There’s a bunch of different parts of (the Braille Challenge), and it’s really fun. And I get to meet — notice I’m not using the word ‘see’ here, because I actually don’t — other blind people because there’s, like, 60 different kids,” Griffin said when asked why he participates annually.

The goal of the Braille Challenge is to make braille “exciting” so kids can “build their confidence and demonstrate to the sighted world how accomplished a student can be when supported properly,” said Nancy Niebrugge,  associate vice president of national programs with the Braille Institute of America.

Competitors in Griffin’s age group, which was fifth- and sixth-grade students, completed four contest categories, which are meant to reinforce academic skills and skills kids would need as they take tests and apply for college, and to ultimately be successful in their employment, according to Niebrugge. In the speed and accuracy session, contestants had to listen to a passage and accurately transcribe it into braille, Niebrugge said. Points were deducted if a competitor missed a braille letter or if the sentence was inaccurate.

Braille is alphabetic — there is one symbol for each letter; however, there are also 189 contractions, Niebrugge explained. A word like “the” could either be brailled with a contraction or be spelled out, and competitors need to know the difference and how to use both.

During the proofreading session, contestants had to find one or more errors within a series of sentences and state which sentence contained the error, Griffin explained. In the third session, reading comprehension, competitors were given stories to read and had to answer multiple-choice questions. The final session, which Griffin said was his favorite because it involved mathematics, was a charts and graph challenge. Competitors read tactile graphs, raised-line images, and had to answer a series of multiple choice questions.

Niebrugge said that reading charts and graphs is a unique skill because children do not get enough practice at learning how to read them. The labels of a chart or graph are in braille, and the imagery is raised lines.

“Too many text books don’t have them or kids skip over them because they’re hard,” Niebrugge said teachers tell the Institute.

In addition to reading braille, Griffin has a passion for mathematics. Between 3- to 4-years-old, he had his multiplication tables memorized and was adding and subtracting, Rachel said. He is taking honors precalculus for high school credit and can recite over 400 digits of pi. Griffin also said he enjoys learning other languages, like German, and is “pretty fluent” in Chinese and Spanish. In the second grade, he learned the periodic table “for fun.”

“We have kids who come year after year and are good enough to hit the top 12, but to be not in junior high and to be in a finalist position four out of five times is very impressive,” Niebrugge said about Griffin. “Even out of our very impressive group of kids, a student may come back five times and win once or twice.”

Only 10 percent of blind people read braille currently, which Niebrugge said is as accurate of a percentage as the Institute can calculate because it represents the number of kids who order educational material in braille. This percentage is lower than what Niebrugge wants to see because it shows not enough students are being taught braille at a young age, and the older a child gets without reading braille, the harder it is to learn. Even if a child is diagnosed with a disorder early but won’t lose their eyesight until later, Niebrugge said they should be taught braille immediately. 

Unemployment for blind adults is up to 75 percent, and 90 percent of those who are employed are braille readers, Niebrugge added.

Griffin said he will probably participate in the competition next year and would compete against ninth-grade students. 

For more information about the Braille Institute of America, visit www.brailleinstitute.org.

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