San Luis Obispo boy earns gold medal in Braille competition

Andy Shen, 7, shows off his skills on a Perkins Brailler, which types Braille on a sheet of paper, in the Pacheco Elementary School library.
Andy Shen, 7, shows off his skills on a Perkins Brailler, which types Braille on a sheet of paper, in the Pacheco Elementary School library. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Second-grader Andy Shen typed on the Braille machine, using his finger to guide his progress along the words on the white sheet of paper as he typed.

Andy, 7, blind since birth, has been learning Braille since he was 5 years old. Reading the raised dots imprinted on the paper, a series of cells symbolizing the alphabet, now comes easily to the young student.

He recently took first place at a regional Braille competition in Anaheim.

“I won a gold medal,” Andy said excitedly, holding the medal up from where it hung around his neck. “It was really fun.”

In addition to learning to read and write Braille, Andy also is learning English and Spanish. At home, he speaks Mandarin.

His parents, Xiaowei Cai and Shuhua Shen, who both work at Cal Poly, enrolled him in Pacheco Elementary School, a dual Spanish-English immersion school in San Luis Obispo, in kindergarten.

“He is good at thinking and languages and has an amazing memory,” Cai said. “We thought about whether it would be too much but decided to give it a try. If we can do it, we will do it, and if it is too much pressure, we can do something different.”

So far, Andy has excelled.

Principal Rick Mayfield said any concerns that he had about Andy being able to take on such a rigorous course load have quickly subsided.

“It is amazing to watch this little guy,” Mayfield said. “He is a special little kid, and he amazes us all.”

Andy’s parents found out that he was blind when he was 2 months old. His blindness is caused by a rare retinal disease called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, or LCA.

He is fully integrated into his second-grade classroom at Pacheco, only spending one hour a day outside the classroom to work with a specialist from the County Office of Education.

An aide assists him throughout the day in the classroom, and all class materials are provided in Braille.

“Many times, teachers use visual cues to help (students) understand what they are saying, and Andy doesn’t have that vision,” Cai said. “So it was very challenging in the beginning. His Spanish is good, his English is good and he is actually excellent in math. He seems to be doing fine and enjoys school. He is a happy boy.”

Andy is quick to tell you his hobbies. He enjoys board games, especially Trouble, making art projects, building blocks and playing the piano.

When he was in kindergarten, he did a piano recital that ended with all of the other students chanting his name because it was so good, Mayfield said.

Andy’s mom said they started piano lessons 21⁄2 years ago on the chance that he would like to pursue it as a hobby.

“He cannot do a lot of things that kids can do like soccer or baseball because of his vision,” Cai said. “We wanted him to have a hobby so that in his leisure time he can enjoy being alone.”

Now, he plays Mozart and Beethoven but has a special affinity to Mozart.

Carrie Haupti, a teacher for the visually impaired and a mobility specialist with the County Office of Education, has worked with Andy since he was 4 years old.

She encouraged Andy to try the Braille competition and even traveled there to watch him compete.

“I always encourage parents to participate in activities with other children who are blind,” she said. “Simply for the knowledge that there are other kids who speak the same language as them.”

Andy is the first blind student to enroll in the dual-immersion program at Pacheco Elementary.

“It is about not setting limitations for children and allowing them to try what they want and setting their own way,” Haupti said.