Merrick Smith uses a braille machine with his teacher Janay Thomas. Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla / Sylvan Lake News

Merrick Smith uses a braille machine with his teacher Janay Thomas. Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla / Sylvan Lake News

Eckville student recognized for brilliance in braille

Eckville’s 13-year-old Merrick Smith is one of two central Alberta students to attain top provincial positions for braille literacy.

Merrick, a Grade 8 student at the Eckville Junior Senior High School, secured third place in the online Alberta regional Braille Challenge. The contest was hosted by the Braille Institute between early January and mid-March.

“I am happy that I won,” said Merrick, adding that he has been learning braille for over four years and hopes to become a marine biologist when he grows up.

About 35 students from across the province competed in the virtual contest, with a Calgary student taking home first place.

“I am so proud of how hard he has worked to get where he is at and it was pretty exciting to find out how well he did in the braille challenge this year because he deserves it. He’s been working really hard,” said Merrick’s braille teacher Janay Thomas.

Merrick was introduced to the braille system of writing after being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at the age of eight. The condition of RP is known to damage the light-sensitive cells in the retina, leading to vision loss over time.

“It just makes me lose my peripheral vision slowly and I also lose night vision.”

This condition is not typical for a child this young, said Merrick’s mother Rosemary Smith. While Merrick currently uses books printed in ink for all classroom learning, he will start using school materials in braille in the fall.

“I don’t need it yet. But in the future when I do need it, it will be helpful,” said Merrick.

With help from Thomas, Merrick was introduced to various learning resources. A brailler, BrailleNote Touch (tablet and note taker), voice-over softwares, audiobooks, and a braille printer are some of the key resources Merrick uses.

The school hired Thomas to guide Merrick through to graduation. While she wasn’t previously versed with braille literacy, after 10 months of rigorous practice Thomas cleared the exam and got certified.

“Learning braille was a lot harder than I expected because there are lots of rules,” said Thomas. “But the biggest thing I’ve learned is how expensive resources are for the visually impaired.”

Unless one is in a school where the district and student services cater to certain requirements, “it’s not affordable to get some of the things that will make their lives easier,” said Thomas. Buying a single braille book could pose a challenge to visually-impaired individuals, she added.

“I think a lot of people who are visually impaired don’t even know braille. It’s not that common,” said Merrick. He feels fortunate to have Thomas guide him every step of the way.

“I never knew anything about it until I was diagnosed.”

Merrick believes that awareness about resources and the knowledge of braille could drastically improve the life of visually-impaired individuals.

“Many people misunderstand how it is with vision problems,” said Merrick. “I can’t see at all in the dark. So, I have to try and find my way and it can be challenging to find where I am.”

Little things such as keeping classroom aisles free from bags and other belongings and not tossing garbage on the sidewalks can help improve the capabilities of visually-impaired individuals, said Merrick. He also suggests people make room for individuals walking with a mobility cane in public places.

In his free time, Merrick likes to skateboard, wrestle, and engage in the para-Olympic sport of goalball.

“Life is usual. We don’t do anything different or treat him any different than any of our other kids. I think the biggest thing is he is just a normal kid and trying to lead a normal life. We need to find ways to make that happen,” said Rosemary.

Merrick expects to find out by June whether his braille challenge marks will enable him to move on to the international level of the competition.

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