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Meeting the challenge

Whether she's playing foosball at the Talent Boys & Girls Club or climbing walls at the Rogue Rock Gym, 9-year-old Emma McCready experiences the world solely through hearing, touch, smell, taste and imagination.

Emma, an Orchard Hill Elementary pupil who lives in Phoenix, was born without sight. Because of a premature birth, her retinas never became attached in her eyes.

"There is really nothing she doesn't do," said Jacob Colmenero of the Talent Boys & Girls Club.

On Saturday, Emma will serve as Oregon's only representative at the ninth annual National Braille Challenge in Los Angeles, the only national academic competition for blind and visually impaired students.

"I think it's amazing," Emma said. "I'm very proud that I'm the only child in Oregon that gets to go to L.A. for the finals. It's just really exciting."

About 60 out of the 600 children age 6 to 19 who applied will compete at the event, sponsored and organized by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute of America Inc. The children come from the United States and Canada.

The competition was designed to promote the study of braille, said Nancy Niebrugge, Braille Challenge director. With the advent of technology, braille literacy rates began declining, and the institute developed the competition as one strategy to reverse the trend, Niebrugge said.

Students will compete in categories that will require them to transcribe, type and read braille. Each category is designed to test their braille skills in several areas: reading comprehension, braille spelling, chart and graph reading, proofreading and braille speed and accuracy.

First- through third-place winners in each age group will receive a savings bond ranging in value from $500 to $5,000. First-place winners win a portable braille pocket personal computer, called a PacMate and donated by Freedom Scientific Corp.

Blind students who know braille are more likely to graduate, go on to college and have higher employment rates, Niebrugge said. Currently, blind people have an unemployment rate that exceeds 70 percent, she said. Illiteracy, federal financial support of the blind and ignorance among employers contribute to unemployment, she said.

"It's surprising that so many stereotypes about blind people still exist," said Leone Holden, Emma's mother. "People just assume they must be musical by nature or they tend to extend help to them unnecessarily, but Emma is a very independent kid who loves many activities most people wouldn't associate with a blind child. She doesn't want to be underestimated."

In defiance of such stereotypes, Emma roller and ice skates and rides a scooter.

Emma learned how to read braille when she was 4 years old. She is the only blind student in her school and uses adaptive devices such as a Perkins Brailler to help her study.

Her special education teacher, Phyllis Hultz of the Southern Oregon Education Service District, taught her how to read braille. Hultz also entered Emma into the competition by administering a series of academic tests developed by the Braille Institute of America. Hultz works with Emma to accommodate her disability, but Emma also is in a regular classroom with her peers.

Emma said she enjoys reading storybooks in braille and writes stories for fun, including a recent fairy tale. She hopes to eventually turn her writing into a career.

Holden said, "I am a single mom and business woman, so I haven't had time to coddle her, and I think that has really served her because she has had to figure it out and do it."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

Nine-year-olds Emma McCready, right, and Haley Thompson share a smile at the Talent Boys & Girls Club. Emma on Saturday will compete in the National Braille Challenge in Los Angeles, the only child from Oregon in the competition. - Bob Pennell