SALT LAKE CITY -- Sixteen-year-old Ellie Price, of Logan, can take a reading test with her eyes closed, and she's not the only one.
Forty students from around the state, including 14 from the Top of Utah, gathered Friday at the Utah State Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired for the annual Utah Regional Braille Competition.
The competition, held annually in states across the nation, is the only academic competition for blind students in the United States.
Utah has been participating in the event for nine years, with the top scorers moving on to the National Braille Challenge, held in June at the Braille Institute in California.
Braille is a system using raised dots to form characters that can be read by touch.
The purpose of the event is to give kids a challenge through braille and to offer youths something to work toward each year, said Merrilee Petersen, a teacher for the visually impaired.
But the biggest reason the kids like coming is to reunite with old friends, she said.
"They get the chance to meet with their peers, and since most are in schools where they are the only ones vision-impaired, it makes it hard to have camaraderie," Petersen said.
"They can come here and relax without worrying about social pressure and just have fun."
"They can even run into the wall together and not worry," she quipped.
Ellie can relate, as she is one of only two visually impaired students from Sky View High School in Smithfield participating in the event.
But Ellie admits she doesn't mind being unique.
"I've never known any different, and besides, my brain works just fine."
As she chatted with several friends before the competition, she commented on how this is what she likes best about the event.
"Competing is a real challenge and a fun way to practice what we've learned, but I like the social aspect the best," Ellie said.
For students with limited vision or no eyesight, braille literacy is fundamental to their success.
"Everything hinges on that, and this event really helps provide motivation and incentive for the kids, and support for the teachers," said Tony Jepson, executive director of the Utah Foundation for the Blind.
He said visually impaired students learn at a very young age how to start recognizing shapes, sizes and textures.
Sam Williams, 8, of Kaysville, was born blind and learned to read and type braille in preschool.
His mom, Camilla, said that was his only option if he wanted to read.
Sam embraced braille and was looking forward to participating in the competition for the first time.
"I'm excited because I get to type on a brailler," a braille typewriter, Sam said before hurrying to his first test with the use of his cane.
Not all of the students at the event are blind. Some have low vision and are learning braille as an alternative.
That is the case for 15-year-old Marybai Huking, of Plain City. She was born with albinism, a condition that sometimes affects vision.
Marybai can read using her eyes, but it can be difficult at times, so she decided to learn braille last year.
"Even though I'm learning it later, it has been beneficial for me because of the strain on my eyes, so it's a good second option," she said.
Marybai practiced for the event by doing a lot of braille reading, but she said she wasn't too worried about the competition because she was just there to have fun and meet new people.