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Education

This Miami 9-Year-Old Excels Behind His Braille Keyboard

 Jeremy "JJ" Matthews, 9, of Miami, participates in braille literacy testing at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind as part of an international competition called the Braille Challenge.
Jeremy "JJ" Matthews, 9, of Miami, participates in braille literacy testing at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind as part of an international competition called the Braille Challenge.

He is a finalist in an international braille literacy competition. The Braille Challenge encourages blind and visually impaired kids to go to college, develop job skills and socialize.

A 9-year-old student from Miami is one of the best braillers in North America.

Jeremy “JJ” Matthews is among 50 finalists from the U.S. and Canada competing in the Braille Challenge, a test of reading and writing skills for blind and visually-impaired children. JJ is one of only 10 finalists in his age group.

JJ was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a form of pediatric cancer, when he was 15 months old, his mom, Jackie, explained. He received four years of treatment. During that time, both of his eyes were surgically removed and replaced with ocular prosthetics, rendering him completely blind.

At age 3, he began learning the fundamentals of braille: how to recognize different surfaces and textures, like bumpy and smooth, by touch.

“When we first started, my wife and I learned to do the alphabet, start reading numbers and everything,” said Brad Matthews, JJ’s dad. “It was not long — and I'm talking less than a couple of months — till JJ blew past us.”

Jackie and Brad get frustrated when people underestimate their son. People often see a disability and assume he’s not capable of as much as his sighted peers, Jackie said. But JJ learned the braille alphabet right along with his classmates learning their ABCs.

JJ’s parents say he will continue to thrive, as long as he has what he needs — like his braille tablet.

“It's similar to an iPad, but braille pops up out of the screen,” Jackie said. “And that's actually been a blessing during virtual school, during the pandemic, because he was able to do his assignments on Microsoft Word in braille, and then he was able to email them to his teachers. They receive it in regular print.”

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JJ was a bit shy during an interview with WLRN, but his playful spirit showed through. At one point during the Zoom conversation, he scooped up Simba, the family’s kitten, and danced with him, as a bright smile spread across his face.

Jackie says the family has a “mini zoo” that includes two other cats and two dogs. One cat is Wynnie, named for the Miami neighborhood Wynwood, which is where the family found her. One of the dogs is Coco, after Coconut Grove, where the family lived when they got her.

The idea for the Braille Challenge came about nearly two decades ago, as a way to encourage blind and visually impaired kids to learn braille — a skill that could help them significantly in the job market. Students are able to participate in the contest more than once — year after year, if they want to — starting when they’re 6 years old through their high school graduation.

In a typical year, finalists and their families fly to Los Angeles, where the nonprofit Braille Institute, which runs the contest, is based.

“Making it to finals for Braille Challenge is a huge deal,” said Sergio Oliva, vice president, programs and services, for the Braille Institute.

“For those parents that have children that get to play sports that are very visual — you bring grandma, you bring your neighbor, everybody cheers,” said Oliva. “We don't really have those options, when we talk about kids with visual impairment. So this is the Olympics for them."

The event also offers students opportunities to socialize with other blind and visually impaired kids from around the U.S. and Canada.

“When you have a visual impairment, you're already socially at a disadvantage,” said Oliva, “because, us sighted people, we take our social cues visually.”

And the competition exposes participants to college, since it is usually held at the University of Southern California “to demystify higher education for the visual impaired community,” he said.

Because the competition was remote this year, JJ participated by taking a braille literacy test at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. Winners will be announced July 30.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

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