“All I can see is light and dark.”
That’s how 12-year-old Ty Gillespie describes his vision, or lack thereof. Though he was born with sight, he lost most of his vision by age two. Doctors initially believed he had Leber congenital amaurosis, an eye disorder that primarily affects the retina, or retinal pigmentosa, a genetic disorder. Both cause loss of vision. Now they believe that Gillespie has cone-rod dystrophy/retinitis pigmentosa, a condition in which the the retinal cells that detect light and colors deteriorate.
Regardless of the cause of his vision loss, Gillespie has learned to deal with it. A sixth-grader at Campus Middle School, he navigates the crowded hallways with confidence and a cane, and wears a sporty pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes from bright lights.
He’s also discovered he has many talents that don’t require perfect vision, such as mental math.
“I can do fractions in my head really easily,” explained Gillespie, who also loves art. “I get to make things I can feel.” Technology is another of his passions. “I love to tinker with technology and computers,” he said.
So it’s really no surprise that this young man who can do math in his head, make art with his hands and handle technology without vision is a wiz at braille. Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, braille is not a language, but rather a code by which many languages can be written and read.
Gillespie can read, write and do math in braille, and he can do those things so well that he is one of only 50 students from across the country to qualify for the National Braille Challenge which will be held June 15-16 in Los Angeles, Calif. It’s the only academic competition of its kind in North America for students who are blind or visually impaired.
During the challenge, Gillespie will be tested on fundamental braille skills such as reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading and reading tactile charts and graphs. For much of the competition, he will use a machine called a braille writer, which looks like an old manual typewriter.
Gillespie has been preparing for the competition with a little help from Jeannie Lei, a teacher for students with visual impairments and blindness who supports Gillespie in his regular classes.
“We get class materials transcribed into braille, we braille the teachers’ notes on the board and just make sure he has access to the curriculum,” Lei said. She also explained that teachers for students with visual impairments also specialize in accommodations and adaptations so that students like Gillespie can access the curriculum, use an abacus for computations use and assistive technologies, like the Braille Note Touch and screen readers, for other coursework.
In addition to supporting his regular schoolwork, Lei is helping Gillespie prepare for the national competition.
“We do some of the dictation. We’re working on reading speed, getting his fingers faster, just working on those things,” she said.
Lei is looking forward to joining Gillespie and his mother in Los Angeles for part of the competition and she knows he will represent Colorado well.
“It’s just a great privilege.” Lei said. “We’re going to have fun.”