Desert Ridge student competes in Braille Challenge The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Desert Ridge student competes in Braille Challenge

Desert Ridge student competes in Braille Challenge

By Zach Alvira
Tribune Staff Writer

A Desert Ridge High School student recently became one of 50 students from North America that competed in the Braille Challenge Finals.

Elijah Massey, a visually impaired 17-year-old heading into his senior year at Desert Ridge, was selected to compete in the Braille Challenge Finals typically held in Los Angeles, California. This year due to COVID-19, however, competitors took part in the national finals from their hometowns.

“I was really excited for it,” Elijah said. “When I made the finals, I was kind of nervous but mostly I was just excited.”

Elijah was selected after placing in the top-10 of his age group at regional finals earlier this year.

The competitors were tested on a variety of fundamental braille skills such as reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading and charts and graphs.

Overall, it’s meant to challenge students from first grade through their senior year in high school to practice their Braille literacy skills.

“It makes me very proud,” said Dane Massey, Elijah’s father. “When he was born, I thought there would be so many challenges in his life. But he’s exceeded expectations. We had no idea how well he would adapt to everything.”

Elijah was born with both of his eyelids shut and unable to open them.

His parents thought it might require a simple, plastic-surgery-like procedure to open them, but when doctors did open his eyelids, his eyeballs were abnormally small and cyst-like.

He was then diagnosed with a rare condition known as bilateral microphthalmia. 

Elijah was unable to see but did react to changes in light. His parents elected to allow doctors to use conformers to shape the eye socket to what would be considered “normal.”

“We decided we would rather he look quote-on-quote, ‘normal,’ as opposed to have reaction to intense changes in light or dark,” Dane said. “At first he went to a school for the blind in Phoenix but they figured he would be better in a public school setting. He’s very intelligent and loves technology.”

Elijah fell in love with computers and software at a young age. He taught himself how to read five different coding languages.

To do this, he utilizes a device called a refreshable braille display, which, instead of traditional paper, refreshes and raises the “bumps” for him to feel as he goes along.

The display has only further entrenched him in his love for technology, which he aims to pursue further after high school when he plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

Elijah said he also had thought of attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology but ultimately wanted to remain as close to home as possible while still involved in a top-notch STEM program.

“I wanted to go to one of the top STEM schools,” Elijah said. “I was planning to go to MIT before but it’s so far away and the weather is so different. There’s a lot of snow. That’s why I chose Berkeley.”

Elijah completed the Braille Challenge Finals in Phoenix at the Foundation for Blind Children. The challenge as a whole took three hours to complete.

He said his favorite part of the challenge was the speed and accuracy portion, largely in part due to it being one of the more challenging aspects of the challenge. To prepare, he would often speed up the sound on audio books. 

Elijah doesn’t yet know what he scored in the finals and he will have to wait another week to find out.

The closing ceremony for the Braille Challenge Finals is scheduled to take place virtually on Saturday, July 25. It’s there the competitors will find out their scores and where they placed and will also hear from a number of guest speakers.

No matter the outcome of the competition, Elijah said it felt great to represent Arizona and Desert Ridge High School on a national stage.

“It was cool to be one of the 50 picked throughout the country and Canada, too,” Elijah said. “It was challenging but fun.” 

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