Steve Kiema, 12, has spent each day this summer studying, as he prepared to write a unique exam.
On Thursday, Kiema competed remotely in the Braille Challenge against students from all over Canada and the United States.
The four-stage competition tests participants on speed and accuracy, reading comprehension, proofreading and charts and diagrams.
“In speed and accuracy, they’ve recorded a passage and you listen to it and braille it as fast and accurately as possible. In proofreading, you read a passage and they’ve put mistakes in it on purpose so they try to throw you off,” said Kiema, as he explained aspects of the competition.
Kiema, who was born visually impaired, took home first place in the regional braille Challenge in Calgary back in early March.
“I was so dumbstruck that I didn’t get up to receive my prize,” he laughed. “I wasn’t expecting to win. I was trying my best because that was the first time I’ve done it. I was very nervous. I was still excited I got to win.”
In June, he found out he had placed in the Top 10 in his age category in North America.
One of just four Canadians in the competition (one other is from Calgary), he was supposed to head to Los Angeles in June. Due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, he instead wrote the six-hour exam inside his future junior high school, Louis St. Laurent Catholic Junior/High School.
Kiema began learning braille just before he started Kindergarten.
“The basic part of braille is easy to learn. There are several contractions that have one or two parts that may take a couple of years to learn all of them. There are short forms too so braille doesn’t take up too much space,” said Kiema.
“He’s been quite eager to learn braille,” said his mom, Catherine Kirugi. “He’s such a bright boy, very active. He’s just a regular kid. Sometimes people don’t realize he’s visually impaired. When he’s familiar with a location he moves around on his own. He swims, he skates, he rides his bike.”
Kiema works with braille transcriber Tanya Van Drunen. The duo has been a team since Kiema was in Kindergarten.
Before COVID-19, Kiema was in a classroom setting—occasionally supplemented by sessions with Van Drunen in a braille room to support his academic learning.
“Once the pandemic hit, we were all at home. It was all digital and online. Being a braille user, that’s a bit of a challenge. We had to get Steve up and running with his peers and classmate to communicate and have classroom meetings. I didn’t want him to miss out on the peer interaction. We were successful,” said Van Drunen.
They’ve been working remotely every day to prepare for the competition.
“He is very much someone I look up to. A role model. He is so positive. He will be the first one to tell you to look on the positive side. He will always be empathetic towards your needs. He is a remarkable young man,” said Van Drunen.
“They understand each other. Steve looks really up to her. She’s very dedicated. Tanya has been amazing during online learning. I don’t think we would have made it through online learning without her,” said Kirugi
Ahead of his exam on Thursday, a group of about 50 supporters arrived to cheer him on before his competition.
“I’ve been helping people at school understand the capabilities of visually impaired people. I think I’ve been advocating in small areas but every journey starts with one step,” said Kiema.
As for if there was any exam stress ahead of Thursday’s test?
“I just remember in the end, what counts most is that you tried your best,” Kiema said.
Kiema will find out his exam results on July 31.