Shawnee Dispatch

Local girl travels to California for national Braille competition

July 7, 2010

Ashlee Thao sits at her desk in her bedroom — a common place to find the Bonner Springs 9-year-old whose seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge keeps her up at all hours of the night.

To her left, a large stack of papers teeters as the most recent sign of her passion for learning.

To her right, sits a Perkins Brailler. Ashlee strikes the keys with sharp, swift moves as she first writes her name using each letter and then again, this time using contractions — a sort of shorthand language used in Braille.

“It takes a lot of skill to write,” Ashlee said. “When you get the hang of it, you’re going to start reading and writing faster as you go.”

Ashlee was born with congenital cataracts and lost her vision during a surgery to remove them. She began learning the Braille system, a form of upraised writing and reading by touch, at the age of 3.

Now moving in to the fifth grade, Ashlee has taken her Braille knowledge to the national level. After winning second place at the Nebraska Regional Braille Challenge, Ashlee recently took her qualifying spot to Los Angeles to compete with 800 of the top blind and visually impaired students from across the United States and Canada. This was her second year to try out at regionals and the first year she qualified for nationals.

With students ranging in age from 6 to 19, Thao blossomed at the contest. While she didn’t take home one of the top three spots in her division, she did bring home an even greater desire to continue her education.

“It was a great success,” Ashlee said.

While in California, Ashlee had the opportunity to visit the Braille Institute of America, where she and fellow competitors got to test the newest in technology of braillers.

To Ashlee’s delight, new braillers not only don’t require the larger paper her family has to special order currently, but she said the machines were lighter weight and the keys were placed closer together.

At competition time, Ashlee competed in three categories in her division: spelling, proofreading and comprehension.

“It was pretty much what I expected it to be,” Ashlee said of the contest. “Except the comprehension part. That was harder. But that was fine with me because when you get to the nationals, it’s going to get harder.”

Ashlee’s mother, Julie Xiong, said she was more than pleased with the outcome of the competition, which she said encourages literacy among the blind, an important issue because so many people stop practicing the language as they get older.

“I think that it was really important for us to be there,” Xiong said. “We gained insight into things that can help (Ashlee) in the future.”

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