EmmaGrace Olech was in third grade the first time she competed in the Braille Challenge.

Now getting ready to enter ninth grade, she has participated in the challenge for several years and built on her skills. Though she said she still gets nervous about competing, EmmaGrace was more excited than nervous this year, her first time qualifying for the finals.

After placing first in her age division, the junior varsity group that includes students in grades seven through nine, at this year’s regional competition, EmmaGrace moved onto the 2022 finals, held at the University of Southern California on June 24-26.

EmmaGrace was the only student from Texas to compete and, though she didn’t place this year, she said it was an amazing experience. “It’s amazing that the Braille Institute … can put on such a large-scale competition.”

Since 2000, the Braille Institute has held its annual academic challenge for blind and visually impaired students. The challenge is open to anyone from first to 12th grade who can read and write in braille, and contestants from around the globe compete in five events: reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, and charts and graphs.

EmmaGrace said she was born with a gene mutation that causes blue cone monochromacy, preventing her from seeing colors and restricting her vision to only light and dark. However, she has not let this hold her back.

She said she studied for months in preparation for the competition and after all that preparation, she felt more excited than nervous. “I think [it’s] because I had studied it as well as I could and couldn’t do better,” EmmaGrace said.

EmmaGrace competed in four tests and said she prefers the reading comprehension and graphs and charts events. “I do better with those than I generally do with speed and accuracy and proofreading.”

EmmaGrace Olech reads over typed braille from a specialized machine that she uses in school and competition.
EmmaGrace Olech reads over typed braille from a specialized machine that she uses in school and competition. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After EmmaGrace was adopted from China and moved to San Antonio at the age of 6 is when she first started learning braille. Later, her third grade vision teacher told her about the Braille Challenge and she decided to give it a try. She won second place in regionals that year.

Jean Olech, EmmaGrace’s mother, has been an avid supporter from the beginning. “I think it’s fantastic that Emma is excited to compete,” she said. “She practices a lot, and I know for next year she wants to go back again to finals.”

Describing the importance of braille to the blind and visually impaired community and how more people should recognize its need, EmmaGrace said, “It’s like a gateway to school and reading. If there weren’t braille there wouldn’t be books for us. School would become so much more difficult, and we couldn’t really write if there wasn’t braille. We’d have to probably dictate everything, have people read books aloud to us, and that would be annoying.”

Aside from braille and competing, EmmaGrace said she loves math and reading, and her favorite genres of books are fantasy and historical fiction. She wants to attend Texas A&M University for college to study something in the math and science field and hopes to work for NASA in the future. EmmaGrace said she looks forward to competing again next year in the Braille Challenge where she hopes to place first in the finals.

Ava Flores is a Scripps Howard Foundation Emerging Journalist intern and a rising senior at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio.