With favorites like John Steinbeck, Robert Graves and Edgar Allan Poe, Chloe Ashford’s tastes are sophisticated for a freshman at Holden High School in Livingston Parish.
Ashford is outgoing and personable, with a sharp wit and a quick mind. She would say the fact that she’s blind sharpened just about every skill she possessed, except for maybe her sense of smell.
“She can still smell better than me,” Chloe said of Kami Ashford, her stepmother and one of her biggest supporters.
Kami Ashford and the rest of the family will be cheering Chloe on June 20 when she competes in the National Braille Challenge in Los Angeles.
Chloe, who will be representing the blind and visually impaired high school community in Louisiana, won the right to compete at the state competition, held in February at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, which she also attended for a time, said Blanche Faulk, outreach coordinator for the school.
“She probably competed against about 70 to 80 other students from all over the state,” Faulk said, adding that the Braille Challenge includes both transcription of an audio passage in Braille, with grading based on speed and accuracy, and reading comprehension in Braille.
It’s not an easy challenge, Chloe said, though she also won the first year she competed on the state level, Kami Ashford said with pride.
“I was really nervous that first year,” Chloe said. She walked into a room full of people she didn’t know — “and I could feel them sizing me up. I know — I can’t see. But even a blind person could feel it,” she laughed, recalling all the blind jokes she heard that day.
It’s what they do to psych each other out.
She said she was stunned when she won, but now finds herself cracking those same blind jokes with newbies who walk into the competition.
Kami, whose family lives in the River Highlands area, which borders Ascension and Livingston parishes, said she’s watched Chloe blossom from a shy, somewhat depressed girl to a well-spoken, self-advocating young woman who is changing the way her peers think not only about her, but about all people with disabilities.
It became imperative that she do so when she transitioned in high school from a class with only visually impaired students into the regular classroom. Her Braille teacher translates her assignments into Braille so she can attend classes with her peers.
The change has been good for her, Chloe said, and she’s learned a lot about the “sighted world,” and her sighted peers have learned a lot about her world, as well.
“She’s absolutely brilliant. She amazes me,” Kami Ashford said.
“I try to remember that we may not always be here to help her. I want her to be independent,” Kami Ashford said. There is never room for feeling sorry for oneself at their house, at least not for long.
Chloe said she’s come to rely on, and often balk at, the steadfast support she gets from her family.
“She’s still a teenager. It’s a tough age, but she handles herself well,” Kami Ashford said.
It wasn’t always the case. Chloe struggled for a long time with depression, a fact of her life that she’s very open about.
She will be traveling to Los Angeles for the second time to compete in the National Braille Challenge, and she has a good feeling about her chances this year.
“Now I know a little about what to expect,” she said.
Nancy Niebrugge from the Braille Institute, the organization that puts on the annual challenge, said the competition was started 15 years ago to boost Braille literacy rates across the country.
Not knowing Braille puts a visually impaired person at a distinct disadvantage, she said. The brain learns differently from reading than it does from hearing something read, and it makes more complex things like long math much more difficult.