Sunday, June 27, 2010

Courageous visually impaired girl competes in Braille challenge!

Before she was 2, Annette Lamas had undergone 10 operations on her eyes.

Born with congenital glaucoma that left her with a prothesis in her left eye and severely impaired vision in her right, she was so sensitive to light that she and her family had to live in darkness, curtains drawn throughout the house, for a year.

``I was very insecure not knowing what the future held,'' said Annette's mother, Ivette Moreno.

But the future seems bright for 7-year-old Annette.

On Saturday, the Miramar girl will join 56 competitors, ages 5 to 19, in the Braille Institute of America's 10th annual Braille Challenge in Los Angeles. The only South Floridian, Annette is one of 12 finalists in her age group.

The competition, which brings together winners of regional preliminaries held throughout the United States and Canada, is often described as the National Spelling Bee for the blind.

``It's meant to motivate children to take Braille seriously, to encourage them to work hard,'' said Nancy Niebrugge, Braille Challenge director. ``It's the one area these kids can truly compete in with no extra accommodations. It's a means of pride.''

The competition consists of five tests: reading comprehension, proofreading, spelling, speed and accuracy and chart and graph reading.

Annette began learning Braille when she was 3.

``She's picked it up super amazing. She's quite smart,'' Moreno said of her daughter, who is now reading at a fourth-grade level.

``Mom, you're talking for me,'' Annette interjected from a yellow swivel chair in the playroom of the family's Miramar home.

The second grader reads her favorite Junie B. Jones books in Braille by tracing over the bumps with her right hand, reading the words aloud and using her left hand to catch mistakes.

To write, she uses a Perkins Brailler, which looks like an old-fashioned typewriter, and a Braille note taker, a lighter, faster and more sophisticated device that stores files and can search the Web. Each machine has six keys for the six dots that form a two-column cell of raised dot combinations to represent letters and words.

Annette and her mother work on homework together for five or six hours each night, and she practices the violin daily. She is a proficient violinist who learned by ear and likes playing Spanish pop songs she hears on the radio more than Mozart.

Since the school year ended, mother and daughter have devoted themselves to preparing for the Challenge.

``Her mom works with her so hard,'' said Karen Tardif, Annette's teacher at Silver Shores Elementary, who added that Annette's skills go beyond the norm.

``She knows a lot about life. She's not quiet. She voices her opinions,'' Tardif said. ``[She has] such high self-confidence and makes jokes about herself.''

While there are other visually impaired students at the school, Annette is the only one who is legally blind. A vision teacher works alongside Tardif to transcribe or collect materials in Braille. Annette used to have a mobility teacher, but she's mastered her two-story school and maneuvers ``excellently'' through the hallways, Tardif said.

``She's very open and conscious of her condition,'' said her mother, noting that Annette gave a presentation to a cousin's 10th grade class about what it is like to be visually impaired.

``She's 7 going on 30,'' Moreno said with a laugh as she brushed Annette's bangs to the side of her forehead.

``Mom, I like them long,'' Annette protested. ``I'm growing them out.''

The vision in Annette's right eye is about 40/200. The glaucoma produces a far-sighted effect that forces her to sit extremely close to a television or computer screen to read large fonts and distinguish colors.

But Annette makes do. In fact, she loves playing computer games.

``If it was up to her, she would stay at home on the computer all day,'' her mother said.

The Braille Institute is paying for the family's room and meals at the Hilton Universal in Los Angeles, where the awards ceremony will be held Saturday night. The top prize in Annette's division is a PAC Mate similar to her Braille note taker and a $1,000 savings bond.

``No, I'm not nervous,'' she said. ``We're going to try to win.''


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