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Reading can be hard enough, but try doing it with your eyes shut.
Mason Tilley, 10, of Bedford, after being born blind, has been able to do exactly that from the age of three.
Mason learned to read Braille from Shannon Stark and Carla Ginn, teachers of the visually impaired. Mason is a fifth grader at Milton Elementary School.
Now, Mason has learned Braille so well that he is competing in it. On Saturday, June 23, Mason flew to Los Angeles, Calif. to compete against 60 other visually impaired students in the National Braille Challenge. Each of the students was a Regional winner from all over the United States.
To qualify for the National Braille Challenge, Mason first had to qualify in Regionals at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville. He has done this twice, and each time he won first place.
Judges at the event graded each contestant’s work and then tallied up the scores.
“If I win, I’ll be too excited to call everyone and tell them I won,” Mason said before the event. “I’ll be really excited, and if I win, I told my mom to be sure and take fireworks, so we can set them off,” he joked.
Mason competed in the categories of spelling, proofreading and reading comprehension.
Mason defined Braille as a “series of dots representing letters, all spelled out” in raised bumps.
He also said that there are two types of Braille: contracted Braille and uncontracted Braille. Mason learned uncontracted Braille first.
He later learned contracted Braille in kindergarten. He said that contracted Braille is easier to use.
To illustrate the difference between contracted and uncontracted Braille, Mason gave the example of the word “lost.” In uncontracted Braille, there is a set of dots for each letter.
In contracted Braille, “L-O” is spelled out, but there is another symbol for “ST.” This saves time and space.
At first, Mason did not believe his mom, Jill Tilley, when she told him they would be going to California for the Braille Challenge. “I had a dream I was flying to California,” he said. “I woke up and my mom was there saying, ‘We’re going to California!’”
While Mason was quick to tell his friends and family about his exciting trip, at first, he did not tell his teacher, Katie Frazier, about his accomplishment.
“I kind of held it off from Ms. Frazier, my teacher,” he said. Frazier had asked how many vacations Mason would be taking over the summer, and at first he did not tell her that one of these vacations would be to California.
When he finally told her, “she was jumping up and down, really excited,” he said.
Mason’s sister Karli, 12, said that it is “unbelievable” that Mason had a chance like this. Mason’s brother Myles, 7, and his dad, Tyler, were also excited about the trip.
No one in the family had ever been to California before, so this was a big opportunity for everyone. The family stayed for a few days after the competition for a mini-vacation.
“We arrived in L.A. on Friday (June 22) and attended a welcome ceremony celebrating all the national finalists in true Hollywood fashion: Red carpet, photo’s, making hand prints on a star and dancing,” Jill Tilley said.
The competition, held the following day, started with an opening ceremony that featured the University of Southern California marching band. Each student was recognized individually by name and state before the testing began.
“Although Mason did not place in the top three he represented Kentucky very well and hopes to be able to return next year,” his mother said. “This was a terrific experience put on by the Braille Institute to promote Braille literacy.”
At the Braille Challenge, Mason used a Perkins Brailler, which is like a typewriter for the visually impaired. He used it in school until second grade when he began using a device called a BrailleNote.
“It helps me type and all that,” he said. “It helps me get my schoolwork done. I put my work onto a flash drive and my teacher, Katie Frazier, prints it out.”
His mother described the BrailleNote as “a little personal computer that has refreshable Braille on it, so that when he types his Braille comes up and he can even read books on it and everything. That’s how he does his schoolwork,” she said.
He even wrote a book using it. While Mason’s favorite subject in school is science, he also likes English because it allows him to read and write. Reading is one of Mason’s favorite activities.
“I stay up and read at night. I always get in trouble with my parents,” he said. “I don’t have to turn on the light to read, I can just use my fingers.”
“I just read anything I can get my hands on,” he said. His favorite genres include fiction, biographies and historical fiction.
“I’m reading a book right now, and it’s called ‘The Blind Colt,’” he said. “I’m reading it because I’m blind and I’ve never heard of a horse that was blind before, except maybe this one,” he said. “I take (horseback) lessons, and there’s a really old horse there and he’s blind in one eye.”
Mason said that the blind horse at his riding school is named Romeo. Like Romeo, Mason has better hearing than most people.
“When you lose your eyesight you have really acute hearing,” he said. “I use my senses a lot. I don’t usually need sight, I just use my senses.”
Mason uses these senses in other things besides reading and riding horses. He also enjoys playing baseball.
He finished this past season with four hits. Mason said that that is “not very much, but at least I hit it.”
Mason plays baseball by listening. When he hits with a ball machine, he can hear a “pop” when the machine goes off, and that tells him when to hit the ball.
Mason said that hitting the ball when his coach pitches it is much harder, which explains his batting average for this year.
He is still optimistic about his batting skills, however. He said that he is happy with the chance to play, regardless of whether he hits the ball or not.
Mason also has taken guitar lessons for four years. “Oh, yes, I love it,” he said about playing the guitar. He plays entirely by ear, and sometimes he and his sister Karli perform in church. Karli sings while he sings and plays.
Before the competition, Mason was very hopeful. “I feel very lucky to be going, and I’m thinking if I go there and win, it’d be totally awesome,” he said. “But if I lose, at least I get to go.”
Of Mason’s accomplishments, his mother said, “We’re just ecstatic...don’t ever put limits on kids, because they can do anything. It’s just awesome.”