Madeline Mau thought signing up for the national Braille Challenge would be just a new endeavor to try.
In her first year competing in the competition Madeline’s try has resulted in her being named a 2020 top 50 finalist in the competition, which has her set to compete in the junior varsity category of the challenge later this month.
“I was very surprised when I found out that I would be a finalist. I honestly did not expect that I would be able to progress to the finals especially in my first year competing,” Madeline said. “I knew a lot of really skilled and intelligent people had gotten into the finals and was not sure I could compete at their caliber in the first year I tried the competition.”
Braille is a written language for the blind and visually impaired. Madeline is completely blind from a condition called LCA (Leber Congenital Amaurosis). According to The Foundation Fighting Blindness, LCA is a group of inherited retinal diseases that cause blindness or severe vision loss in a person’s early childhood.
The condition can affect a child in the their first few months of life and is due to the degeneration of cells in the retina of the eyes.
According to Braille Institute, once finalists are selected they get placed into five categories: apprentice, freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity. The winners of the finals challenge will be announced at a July 25 virtual closing ceremony.
“When I signed up I only had a month to prepare for the regional competition, but it was fine because I had already had a pretty good grasp of Braille,” Madeline said. “Most of the activities were just applying it to different scenarios, which I also was pretty familiar with from school.”
The Braille Challenge was created by the Braille Institute in 2000 as a national academic competition for blind and visually impaired students, which tests on fundamental braille skills such as reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, charts and graphs.
“The difficulty of the sections varies. Some of them are easy enough for me such as reading comprehension and even the section where you have to analyze charts and graphs, but they are sections that were really hard,” she said. “I plan on participating in this competition in the future as well.”
Since this is Madeline’s first year with the Braille Challenge she has not developed a precise regiment and schedule for practice in the way of other finalists, who have experience competing in the competition.
Finding a couple of old tests from the Braille Challenge website to know what the test entails, using knowledge from her school education with Braille, and drawing on experience from some of her friends who have been participating in the competitions in previous years aided Madeline in testing for regionals in March.
“We are very happy and excited. We were surprised. This is her first year taking part in the Braille Challenge,” said Hairong Yu, Madeline’s mother. “She has been using Braille since preschool, but we had no idea on the national scale where she compared to other students who use Braille.”
Madeline is 14 years old and a rising freshman at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. As for her hobbies, she enjoys reading various genres of books that include science fiction and fantasy, watching YouTube videos, and practicing her musical instruments. She describes her hobbies as a typical life for teenager.
Since she was young, Madeline has been able to utilize state services from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind. Once she started schooling the schools she enrolled in have been supportive by providing accessibility towards technology and Braille instruction, according to Yu.
“It is not as easy as it is for sighted children when going through this, but she has been doing well so far. I think in general when it comes to awareness about blindness and how people with that blindness navigate life, Madeline has done quite well with self-advocacy,” she said. “It is quite rare for people to run into blind people in life. We hope people keep an open mind and pay more attention and lend a helping hand when they run into people who do have blindness.”
Siun-Chuon Mau, Madeline’s father, explained when it comes to schooling each child that is disabled has their own individualized curriculum that is negotiated with the school at the beginning of each school year. In Madeline’s case the state Commission for the Blind is also involved. The commission and the school collaborate with the parents to design Madeline’s curriculum in her education.
“Even with a very good West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District there is a systemic issue there that I do not think is anyone’s fault, which is the teachers are not responsible for knowing anything about Braille and the perception of blind people,” he said. “That is where the issue of education adaptation comes into play. All her school material is translated into Braille for her to consume including textbooks and homework assignments. Most of her teachers are doing strong work for her, but self-advocacy plays an important role.”
Madeline added that the issue of education adaption can increase for blind students in the last few years of high school when the material is getting more challenging.
“In terms of Madeline’s personality, she is quite headstrong. Adding to what my wife was saying about self-advocacy for the disabled and blind people, Madeline does a great job for herself,” he said. “I think it is quite usual for people to think that blind people are less capable than they really are.”
As Madeline prepares for the finals, she wants people to take away from her recent achievement the idea of trying something new.
“You never know what may happen. When I signed up for the Braille Challenge I never thought I would be one the top 50 in the nation,” she said. “That I would be competing with all of my friends who have done this competition for 10 years. Just try everything and see what works and what doesn’t.”