High-school student goes to national braille competition
As his fingers glided across the page, quickly translating a series of raised dots into a history lesson, Silvio Plata said he felt like any other rising high school sophomore.
But he isn’t.
At 15 years old, he’s a cancer survivor, a skilled pianist and singer; he can play the ukulele and drums, too, and he’s especially skilled at typing and reading Braille.
So good that he started entering speed-reading and typing competitions at age 7, racking up first-place finishes in multiple regional tournaments. And later this month, the G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School student will fly to Los Angeles to represent Florida at the 2019 Braille Challenge National Finals.
“When I read and when I write, when I do it, I feel equal to those who can see,” he said during an interview Thursday at his home in the Fontainebleau area. “I feel on the same level as them. I know I am. Reading and writing is proof of that. It makes me happy.”
Participants in the Braille Challenge are tested on reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, and charts and graphs. After competing in any of the 51 regional competitions across the U.S. and Canada, the top 50 students — 10 for each of five age groups — with the highest scores are invited to the National Finals.
Silvio, a member of the junior varsity age group, is the only student from South Florida in the competition. Two younger students in different age groups will join Silvio as the only other Floridians represented in the contest, to be held June 21-22 at the University of Southern California.
“I’ve been going [to competitions] since I was 7 years old and my dream has always been to go to California,” he said. “And it turns out this year it came true.”
He said he’s best at the speed and accuracy test. Competitors, wearing headphones, are typically given about half an hour to type out spoken passages as accurately and quickly as possible using a Braille typewriter. On average, Silvio said, he can knock out four full pages in 25 minutes.
“What makes it difficult is we have to be fast and accurate at the same time, and usually those tend not to go very well together,” he said.
Silvio, who was born in Nicaragua, lost his eyes during surgeries at the age of 9 months and 18 months after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma. Months after being born, Silvio’s mother noticed her son’s strange symptoms. He would scratch at his eyes and cry at night, and images of his eyes showed stains of some kind.
“There were a bunch of sleepless nights,” he said. “In Nicaragua, they couldn’t do much about it.”
So, at the direction of their doctor, Silvio’s mother took her son to the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.
“When they gave me the diagnosis that it was cancer, that was something very difficult to accept,” said Ileana Plata, 50. “In Nicaragua, they didn’t know what it was.”
Plata said she entered Silvio into Braille competitions in second grade at the direction of a teacher. But since then, she has followed his lead. She said she doesn’t yet understand how her son can read Braille so easily, although it is essentially his first language.
The Braille system contains six dots, combined in different ways to make letters, words and numbers.
Some words are shortened using Braille contractions. Still, Braille is more cumbersome than traditional text, and its font is typically larger. The information that can fit in a sighted student’s standard textbook can easily span a box of 18-volume Braille books, Silvio said.
“I feel very proud that he is such a good Braille reader,” Ileana Plata said. “I’ll touch the bumps and for me, they’re all the same. I can’t recognize which one is A, even if it’s just one bump.”
Where mom does help out is picking out clothing. During a recent interview, Silvio was dressed in a blue polo shirt tucked into ironed slacks, with stylish brown shoes on. While comfort is his priority, he concedes he likes to look good.
“When it comes to the way I dress, the one who knows all of that is my mom, because she’s an expert at combining colors,” he said. “When we’re at the store, she chooses the clothes that are good for me. I don’t do any choosing. I just put them on.”
Silvio said he has no memory of sight, but that his doctors have said he likely did see at one point, if even just light. He prefers not remembering. It makes it easier to move on.
“I’m glad I was little when it happened, so I don’t remember any of that or any of the painful memories of being sick,” he said. “For me, it makes it easier just to not know how it is to see. So there’s nothing to miss.”
During the school year, he begins his days around dawn to catch a 5:30 a.m. bus. He gets back home around 3:30 p.m. He has taken formal music classes at the Doral Conservatory School of the Arts since he was 5. At W.R. Thomas Middle School, he was enrolled in Advanced Band, where he played xylophone and drums. He also performed at church.
A perennial honor roll student, Silvio listens to music while doing homework. He especially looks up to Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian opera singer, and plans to perform Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” and play some Beethoven at a recital on Saturday at the Doral Conservatory.
But he doesn’t plan to pursue music professionally. Unless the Florida Bar decides to require attorneys to serenade judges with their musical prowess.
“Music is going to be, when I grow up, I plan it to be my favorite hobby,” he said. “What I really want to study is law. That goes back to my passion for reading and writing but also for debate. I really enjoy debating and defending my point of view, the way I look at things and finding that evidence to support my point of view.”
Although he is the only blind student in his class, Silvio said he enjoys making friends with sighted people, who offer him different perspectives. He plans to join a debate team next year and put his skills to work.
“It makes me feel proud that I’m able to do what I do today, and I give thanks to God that he has blessed me with so many skills, so much talent and the technology that we have today that allows us to do this,” he said. “This is all a blessing from God.”