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Blind Abbot-Downing student wins braille device in national competition

  • From left, Nicole Haney, 9, and Riley Odell, 9, hang out with their classmate Abby Duffy, 9, as she shows off her new Perkins SMART Brailler at the Abbot-Downing open house on Thursday night, September 13, 2013. Duffy, who is visually impaired, won the high tech Brailler through a national competition where her family blogged about their experience and the benefit that the machine provided to Abby's learning. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    From left, Nicole Haney, 9, and Riley Odell, 9, hang out with their classmate Abby Duffy, 9, as she shows off her new Perkins SMART Brailler at the Abbot-Downing open house on Thursday night, September 13, 2013. Duffy, who is visually impaired, won the high tech Brailler through a national competition where her family blogged about their experience and the benefit that the machine provided to Abby's learning.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Abby Duffy, 9, spelled out her name on her new Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, that she won through a national competition. With this device, Duffy can practice her Braille and get immediate feedback.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Abby Duffy, 9, spelled out her name on her new Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, that she won through a national competition. With this device, Duffy can practice her Braille and get immediate feedback.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Abby Duffy is a 9-year-old blind student at Abbot-Downing who won a Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, through a national competition. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Abby Duffy is a 9-year-old blind student at Abbot-Downing who won a Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, through a national competition.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • From left, Nicole Haney, 9, and Riley Odell, 9, hang out with their classmate Abby Duffy, 9, as she shows off her new Perkins SMART Brailler at the Abbot-Downing open house on Thursday night, September 13, 2013. Duffy, who is visually impaired, won the high tech Brailler through a national competition where her family blogged about their experience and the benefit that the machine provided to Abby's learning. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Abby Duffy, 9, spelled out her name on her new Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, that she won through a national competition. With this device, Duffy can practice her Braille and get immediate feedback.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Abby Duffy is a 9-year-old blind student at Abbot-Downing who won a Perkins SMART Brailler, a high tech braille reader, through a national competition. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

After receiving more than 13,000 online votes from family, Abbot-Downing School friends and people around the globe, fourth-grader Abby Duffy, who is legally blind, is the new owner of a high-tech device that reads and writes braille.

“It was weird because I could track back an ‘Abby’ vote, (and) it was people I didn’t know, people all over the country that were voting,” Abby’s mom, Penny, said yesterday as Abby showed off her new device to friends.

Abby, 9, won the Perkins SMART Brailler through an online competition among six children who sampled the device earlier this year. When voting closed Sunday after two weeks, Abby’s 13,000 votes made up 40 percent of the total. Yesterday, she showed her brailler off to friends during Abbot-Downing’s welcome-back picnic, and on Sept. 20, her family will hold a show-and-tell at the New Hampshire Association for the Blind.

Abby began losing her central vision at age 6 and was soon diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a mitochondrial disease that is rare in girls her age. She immediately began learning braille and has several devices to use at school and at home that help her read books and communicate in writing. But her newest device is different because it has a built-in computer screen that shows and dictates the letters Abby is typing. That way, people who can’t read braille can see and hear immediately what she is writing. She calls the device her “ginormous pencil.”

The Concord School District has been very responsive to Abby’s needs, her parents said. In the mornings, Abby sees Adrienne Shoemaker, a teacher for visually impaired students. Then she spends the rest of the day in a regular fourth-grade classroom, learning the same lessons as her classmates.

Because she started going blind at such a young age, Abby has been able to learn basic braille relatively quickly, her parents said. The disease that affects her vision primarily affects men in their late teens and early 20s, Penny said. Women with the gene have only a 10 percent chance of going blind.

Abby said it’s better that she lost her vision early.

“It’s a good thing,” she said. “You don’t usually learn braille when you’re that old, so I would be listening to audio books for the rest of my life if I learned it when I was like, 16.”

The device works somewhat like a typewriter and has six keys that correspond with the six dots that make up braille letters and words. To write, Abby presses the corresponding key for each dot to form the letter she wants to make. Those letters then appear on a screen and are read out loud. Another device she uses doesn’t have a screen, which means people who don’t read braille can’t understand what she’s writing until someone translates it.

With her new device, “it’s much easier to know if I made a mistake,” she said.

Just as braille is now a normal part of Abby’s life, her blindness is now part of her family’s life. Penny said her first feeling was shock when they learned Abby was going blind, but the family has since adapted. In addition to limited central vision, Abby also has peripheral vision, which helps her navigate her surroundings. She uses a white cane to get around school and unfamiliar places.

That doesn’t stop her from participating in activities such as skiing and kayaking. Her dad, Chris, came up with noise signals when they ski to indicate when she needs to turn or something is in front of her. Chris said Abby also faces small inconveniences that a person with full vision wouldn’t notice, such as street signs that don’t give audio cues when it’s safe to walk or public restroom signs that aren’t positioned low enough for her to read the braille.

But instead of being upset about Abby’s situation, her family has tried to turn any negative feelings into positive action. Penny is a board member of National Federation of the Blind of New Hampshire and president of New Hampshire Parents of Blind Children. Through those organizations they’ve met other families with blind children. She also blogs about the family’s experiences at visionfora.blogspot.com.

If Abby could make the most of the situation, Penny thought, so could the family.

“Abby didn’t have time to feel bad for herself, she was in first grade, she was busy,” Penny said. “She wanted to get things done.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments7

Everyone is welcome to check the SMART Brailler out next Friday Sept 20th at 4pm at the New Hampshire Association for the Blind 25 Walker St. Abby is going to be making braille bookmarks.

I saw it on my Facebook page and voted.

Thank you for your support

what a great article. Abbey will go far in life with such a great attitude. She is an inspiration to me and made my day. Congrat Abbey on your new machine. How fun to be able to let your family know exactly what your thinking. Abbey your family is special also. Sound like you are enjoy life to the fullest.

We are very excited. Thank You

Congratulations Abby and the Duffy family; I am happy my friends and I were able to help you win!

Thank you for your support. It means so much.

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