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Blair Family
Catherine Blair, 12, with her dad, David Blair, competed in the National Braille Challenge.

At any given time you might see Caroline Blair, 12, of Salt Lake City, out skiing, hiking or rock climbing. Or she may be inside practicing the piano.

But in late June, Caroline was in Los Angeles competing with 60 other visually impaired students in the eighth annual National Braille Challenge. She was the sole Utah representative.

Caroline, who was born blind, loves to read Braille — and that is the secret of her success, says Merrillee Petersen. She is a member of the board for the Utah Foundation for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

"We were thrilled to have someone going from Utah," Petersen said. She coordinates the Utah Braille Challenge, in conjunction with the Braille Institute of America.

Caroline didn't place in the event but said she had a lot of fun competing. Her father, David Blair, said, "There was a moment of disappointment, but these kids are the best in the country."

And competing in Braille isn't all that Caroline does for fun.

The spunky pre-teen says she wishes for the day when being blind and active isn't such an anomaly and for when blind people can be totally independent.

When Caroline skis, her father uses voice commands to guide her. When hiking, she uses trekking poles and goes in a group. She plays piano by ear. And rock climbing is easy — it's all by touch.

"Sometimes people are pretty surprised," she said. "Others say, 'Yeah, of course she can do this."'

Caroline spoke in a phone interview with the Deseret News while she was at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. There she was learning cane travel, living skills and technology.

"I just want to be a normal person," Caroline said. "It's not that I don't want to be blind — I just don't want to always have someone else with me."

Caroline added she didn't mind her mother flying with her to Louisiana, however, and to the Braille Challenge in California.

Caroline's mother, Pat Renfranz, said her daughter wants to be just like any other kid, "and I think she can do it."

Renfranz said her life changed after Caroline, her first of two girls, was born with microphthalmia, in which the eyes don't fully develop. The ultrasound didn't show it, and she was completely unprepared for how to raise a blind child.

Renfranz received help from the Utah School for the Deaf and the Blind, as well as an early intervention agency.

From day one, Renfranz and her husband began educating Caroline in a different way. They put things in her hands. They used toys that had all different shapes and feels — even nubbly dog toys.

"Here is a piece of the world for you," Renfranz recalls thinking as she handed toy after toy to her daughter.

Whenever there was a noise in the house, they would take Caroline to the sound, have her feel it and tell her what it was, such as the washing machine.

"The world is very different for her," Renfranz said.

By age 3, Caroline was in preschool at USDB and the University of Utah. By third grade she had fully transitioned to a magnet program for gifted and talented children in Granite School District's Morningside Elementary School. This fall she will be at Churchill Junior High School.

Caroline plans to be on her school's cross country team.

"I think she can do it," Renfranz said.

She and her father have been training. While they run, each holds an end of a thick 2-foot-long rubber band, such as those used in exercise classes.

"I just trot along with her," David Blair said.

This was Caroline's fourth year participating in the state Braille competition and her second time going to nationals. She hasn't placed in nationals yet.

In June's competition, the students transcribed, typed and read Braille. Every participant, ages 6 to 19, received a trophy. The first- through third-place winners in each age group also got a savings bond ranging from $500 for the youngest group to $5,000 for the oldest. Further, Freedom Scientific Corp. donated a portable Braille device for top winners, called a PAC Mate, which is the world's first accessible pocket PC with a Braille display.

In the Braille competitions, the students use a Perkins Braille writer. Many visually impaired people use a modern tool to write Braille, which has similar keys to the Perkins but is called a notetaker and is more like a laptop computer.

Every Braille student has used a Perkins Braille writer, so using it for the competitions is "the great equalizer," said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the National Braille Challenge.

"The goal of the competition is to encourage children to practice their Braille and to take it seriously but also to make it fun," Niebrugge said.

Braille is a critical skill for the students to master. For them, not knowing Braille is the equivalent of a "seeing person" not knowing how to read, Niebrugge said. "If you have significant vision loss and you don't know Braille, you are pretty much illiterate," she said.


E-mail: astewart@desnews.com