Denisha Kirnes is halfway through the popular teen book Twilight. "I like to take my time," the 15-year-old said. "I love this book." But unlike most teens, Denisha reads in braille. Her fingertips linger over the words made of small bumps.
She lost her sight as a baby to a tumor and has been reading braille since kindergarten.
"It's like a code for us," said Denisha, who lives near Bearss Avenue. "To me it's kind of like a new language."
She competed last weekend in the Braille Challenge, hosted by the Braille Institute, at the Lions Eye Institute in Ybor City.
The institute started the reading and writing contest to motivate blind students to study braille, a skill that some say is dying in America with the onset of audiobooks and computer programs.
Sue Glaser, the coordinator for Florida's Braille Challenge, said reading and writing braille is as important for blind children as reading and writing print is for children who can see.
Forty-four visually impaired students from 13 Central Florida counties competed at the annual event, she said.
People often ask her: "With all this new technology, isn't braille obsolete?"
Her typical response: "Do you still use a pen and paper?"
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On a recent Monday, Glaser led a group activity with 16 visually impaired middle and high school students at the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind on W Platt Street. Each week they work on independence skills, such as cooking meals, researching career options and reading and typing braille.
Denisha comes every week.
She leaned over a machine called a Perkins Brailler, similar to a typewriter. It has six main keys, which represent the six dots that make up braille characters.
Denisha calls it her 10-pound pencil. Glaser separates the students into two teams and they pick adjectives to describe each other. Denisha types the words in braille. For Denisha, her team picks "friendly" and "magnificent."
The increasing practice of sending visually impaired kids to their local schools contributed to the decline in learning braille, said Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind.
Mainstreaming is good for blind students in some ways, Augusto said, but those who graduate from high school without learning braille often can't spell or construct sentences.
"In 1950, 90 percent of blind kids went to schools for the blind and had braille teachers," he said. "Today 90 percent of the blind are mainstreamed. We have difficulty finding braille teachers."
Another reason for the decline, Augusto said, is that more low-birthweight babies survive today. Some are blind and have other disabilities and don't have the capacity to learn braille. In 1950, most blind children didn't have other disabilities, Augusto said. Today most do.
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Hillsborough County schools employ about 30 vision teachers, who teach visually impaired people from birth to age 22 and who often work at more than one school, or in homes, said Kathy Kremplewski, a vision teacher.
Visually impaired kids in Hillsborough can attend their neighborhood schools, where vision teachers visit periodically, or cluster schools, which have classes of others like them.
Kremplewski teaches at Armwood High in Seffner, a cluster school.
One of her students, Jennifer Roule, 16, competed in last week's challenge. Jennifer was born with a slow-growing brain tumor that doctors discovered when she was 11. She nearly lost her life, she said. Instead, she lost her vision.
A month later, she started learning braille.
At her home in Seffner, she uses her braille machine to make lists and reminders. At school she recently completed a 25-page report on poetry. She is also learning braille for music.
Kremplewski said Jennifer does 90 percent of her work in braille.
In high school, Kremplewski also uses audio material to prepare students for college.
"We want them to be able to be competitive in a sighted world," she said.
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Denisha was a baby when doctors found a tumor on her retina. They took her right eye out and put in a prosthesis. Her left eye was damaged by the tumor, too. She sees vague shapes and bright colors.
Now she goes to Burnett Middle School in Seffner, another cluster school.
She likes braille; it helps her to be independent.
She recently printed braille labels and stuck them to the number pad of her microwave, so she can use it without help.
When she goes out to eat with her parents, she asks for a braille menu.
Reading braille books allows her to go at her own pace and savor stories.
She plans to go to the University of South Florida and dreams of being a public defender.
Studies show that 30 percent of blind adults are employed full time. Ninety percent of them are braille readers.
She doesn't want her lack of vision to limit her. She practiced hard for last week's competition. And when it was over, she had something to brag about. For the second year in a row, she won first place in her division.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.