NORTH COLLEGE HILL -- Ohio could be sending students for the first time ever to compete in the National Braille Challenge this summer.
Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired hosted the Ohio Regional Braille Challenge March 3 at the organization's North College Hill location.
"Kids came from all over the state," said Jessica Chandler, vision specialist for Butler County Educational Service Center.
The challenge, which is new to the state this year, is a braille literacy test created by the Braille Institute in 2000. Open to blind and visually impaired students in kindergarten through 12th grade, it tests youths in various components of braille literacy, including speed, accuracy and comprehension.
Students compete in one of five categories: apprentice, freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity. Despite the similarity to high school naming conventions, the categories are based on ability rather than age or grade.
"It's all about your skill level in braille," said Jessica Salyers, vice president of fund development and community relations for Clovernook.
Test coordinators work with teachers and parents to determine which category individual students should compete in.
"If you're new to braille or not extremely advanced in braille, you would test in apprentice regardless of age or grade level," Salyers said.
The challenge is designed primarily to encourage braille literacy, with the hope of increasing employability among those who are blind or visually impaired.
"It's been shown that youth and adults who are braille readers are much more likely to be employed," Salyers said.
Between Dec. 1 and March 10, competitors in more than 51 regional challenges and individual tests vied for a spot at the 2017 National Braille Challenge. The students with the top 10 scores from each skill-level bracket will compete in the national challenge in Los Angeles June 16 and 17.
Clovernook representatives expect to know in May whether any Ohio students qualified for the national challenge.
Although the Ohio Regional Braille Challenge was open to students from around the state, many of the 24 participants live locally, representing districts including Hamilton City Schools, Lebanon City Schools and Ross Local Schools.
Two kindergartners from Ross' Elda Elementary were among those who took part in the challenge.
"I was actually worried that my kids at Ross who are in kindergarten were too little," Chandler said.
Despite her concerns, the day's events included a sufficient amount of snacks, encouragement and activities to keep things fun for even the youngest students.
"I think Clovernook did a really good job of planning out the sequence of events," Chandler said.
One part of the challenge she particularly enjoyed was seeing students receive recognition for their accomplishments when the top three scores from each category were announced.
"Every time a student's name was called … they had a smile on their face that was -- you can't duplicate that in any other way," she said.
Although the competition was created to promote braille literacy, it has the added benefit of providing an opportunity for participants to feel included and engage with peers like themselves. It's also a chance to celebrate the youths for their accomplishments that otherwise may get overlooked.
"This is an event that is very unique and very special and gives them an opportunity to be recognized for their skill set that usually goes unrecognized," Salyers said. "It's a hard skill to acquire."
Clovernook representatives already are planning to host another braille challenge for next year and may add a novice category to introduce beginners to the competition.