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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

WARRENSBURG — Olivia Pan Abla wants to be the first blind American Ninja Warrior.

“Let me show you how I do push-ups,” said the second-grader, dropping to the floor in the Warrensburgh-Latham Elementary School room where she works with special education teacher Jill Hackman on her Braille skills. After the push-ups, Olivia showed off her muscles and kissed her biceps like bodybuilders do.

Not much stands between Olivia and her goals, and she may find a way to compete on the NBC show, where athletes conquer daunting obstacle courses, said her mother, Sandra Abla, who homeschools Olivia when she's not with Hackman.

Olivia is totally blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. She can see light and dark, and can read and write if the letters are large enough and if she holds things close to her face.

“She started (learning Braille) in October of 2016,” Hackman said. “She was in first grade, but had to start with the kindergarten-level material, and she finished that in about 2½ months. Then we went into first-grade material. She's a very fast learner, probably the fastest Braille learner I've ever worked with, and this is my 20th year of teaching.”

When Hackman heard about the Braille Challenge, a national program of the Braille Institute in California, she knew it was a perfect fit for Olivia.

“It was spelling tests and proofreading and normal reading, and I answered the questions,” Olivia said.

Olivia won her age group and was awarded an iPad, gift cards, a stuffed animal, socks and candy. The iPad will be especially helpful for her, her mother said, because of apps that will enlarge printed words for her and speak aloud to make using it easier for her.

“(Reading visually) is hard on her eyes,” Sandra Abla said. “Her eyes get very tired.”

The walls of Hackman's special education room at the school are lined with squares of paper representing all the words Olivia knows in Braille, along with pictures of the Braille representations of those words.

She takes a spelling test every week, and in second grade, Olivia said, she has to know 15 words a week. In first grade, it was only 10. She is adept with the Braille writer and readily shows off her speed and accuracy.

The Braille Challenge is designed to encourage blind students to emphasize their study of Braille and requires students to complete various tasks such as proofreading. That one, at first, threw Olivia for a loop.

“There weren't any errors,” Olivia said.

Hackman laughed and explained that Olivia had accidentally been given a piece without errors, and while neither Hackman nor Sandra Alba could be in the room during the challenge, they heard about it afterward. The judges gave Olivia a different piece to proofread.

The challenge previously was in Chicago, but this year it was Feb. 8 in Jacksonville, a more convenient location for area parents, Hackman said. It's also where the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Philip J. Rock Center and School, which serves children who are deaf and blind, are located.

Braille was developed by Louis Braille, who was born in 1809, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, based in Arlington, Virginia. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where books for the blind were created with raised print, but those were difficult to produce and read.

Braille based his new method on the Ecriture Nocturne (night code) used on the battlefield for military messages sent at night. Using a series of raised dots in specific configurations, Braille is used all over the world in various languages. English-speaking countries adopted a common format known as Unified English Braille in 2016.

Even with Braille, books for the blind are much larger and heavier than printed books. A book such as the Bible, for example, can require several volumes.

Yet the Braille writer that Olivia uses is small and has only a few keys, which she holds down in different combinations to create the Braille letters and signs that indicate capitalization or numbers. Sighted people can learn to read Braille visually, while the blind use their fingers.

Sandra Abla is learning Braille, too, but admitted with a laugh that it's uphill work and Olivia is far better than she is.

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