"Disabled" doesn't describe Emily Bowe, a Gilbert teen who has been blind since birth.
The 15-year-old honors student at Campo Verde High School plays the flute, clarinet, and piccolo, speaks German, says she has completed “a few” novels, and is one of the most talented young people in the nation at Braille reading and writing. She's one of 50 students from around the United States — and one of 10 in her group of students in grades 7-9 — who’ll be going to the 16th annual Braille Challenge in Los Angeles on June 18 to compete for scholarship money and new computer equipment.
The national contest is staged annually by the 97-year-old nonprofit Braille Institute.
As a younger competitor in the annual contest, Bowe came in fourth out of twelve in her bracket during the finals a few years ago, she explained during a recent interview at her home. Asked if she expects to win this time around, the outgoing teen exclaimed, "Yes, I do! What kind of question is that?"
For Bowe and her family, the Braille Challenge is a fun and exciting event that has a higher purpose in spreading the word that Braille, the 19th-century invention that substitutes raised dots on a page for letters, numbers, and punctuation, can be the key to a better life for many visually disabled people.
"It has opened so many doors for Emily," said her mother, Cheryl Bowe.
For one thing, Braille — combined with state-of-the-art electronics — has allowed her to keep pace with her peers in both homework and online media.
The eldest of the five Bowe children, Emily was born with a malformed optic nerve that broke the connection between her eyes and brain. She doesn't know what anything looks like and naturally doesn't think or dream with images. She imagines the world "tactually."
"It's just a fact of life," she said.
Her parents steered her to elementary Braille at age 3. As a toddler, she'd sometimes complain, "I can just listen to books," her mother said. But they stuck with it, and "one day it just clicked."
Braille is "essential" for people with visual impairments, says Sergio Oliva, the Braille Institute's national programs director.
"Unemployment is really high for this population," Oliva notes.
An estimated 7.3 million Americans 16 or older have varying forms of visual impairment, and more than 60,000 blind children qualify this year for a federal program that provides free reading material in Braille, large-print type, or audio format.
But learning to read tiny six-dot grids with one's fingertips isn't easy. Starting young is best. Some adults who never learned Braille can get pretty good after a few months, Oliva says, but most take longer.
Technology hasn't made Braille obsolete in spite of advances, including apps that describe the contents of photographs. Reading is still the fastest way to absorb information, and Bowe can text, e-mail, chat, and surf the web on her iPhone — just about everything but play video games.
Bowe keeps her screen blacked out — she has memorized the position of the app icons. The iPhone pairs by Bluetooth to the refreshable Braille display on loan from her school, a small computer that converts electronic text sent by the phone. The device raises and lowers smooth, plastic pins through holes to make ever-changing words and sentences.
"I can see what's happening on my screen," she said as her hand glided over the display. She added that she's also a huge fan of the phone's text-to-speech feature.
The winner of each category in the Braille Challenge receives a Braillenote Apex, a laptop computer with a refreshable Braille display. The high-tech devices, similar to Bowe's school loaner, retail for about $5,500.
Bowe has been practicing as much as possible.
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She will have to nail four different categories of tests for the LA judges: proofreading; reading comprehension; tactile maps, graphs, and charts; and speed and accuracy. In that last challenge, she'll use her Braille typewriter — a "brailler" — as an unfamiliar passage from a book is read to her.
"You have to try to Braille it out as fast as you can, but as accurate as you can," Bowe said, demonstrating by writing her name with the machine with precision finger punches.
Bowe, who'll finish up her freshman year in high school this week, says she's looking forward to going to college someday and wants to be a writer.
"She does everything well," Cheryl Bowe said, "and succeeds."