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Johnsburg's Alexa Schwichow takes on National Braille Challenge

Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 1:19 p.m. CDT
(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Sunlight shines through the window as Alexa Schwichow, 18, of Johnsburg sits down at her kitchen table with her braille typewriter at her home Monday. Schwichow will be competing in the National Braille Challenge on Saturday in Los Angeles. She has placed in the top 10 of her age group in her pass competitions.

JOHNSBURG – Alexa Schwichow knows she can’t get nervous or she might not do as well.

The 18-year-old Johnsburg High School graduate is one of 60 students from across the U.S. and Canada set to compete in the National Braille Challenge on Saturday at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles.

This is her fifth year at the Challenge, but she’s been competing since she was 7 or 8 years old. She’ll be tested on speed and accuracy, reading comprehension, proofreading and chart and graph reading.

She’s won the Illinois Braille Challenge once and was runner-up another time.

“I like not only that it gives me a chance to enhance my Braille skills, but it gives me a chance to socialize with other blind individuals around the country,” Schwichow said. “I’ve made some of my best friends at Braille Challenge.”

She’s one of the few blind kids in the area, so it was interesting to find out how other people do things, such as folding a T-shirt, or the different assistive technologies they use.

“There’s not one solid way, even though we’re blind, to do everything,” she said. “It also helps me to realize that although my parents are hard on me and stuff at times, it’s because they’re doing it for my own good.

“I’ve seen situations where the parents are not hard on the student, and they grow up to be very dependent on sighted people. I don’t want to live my life like that.”

Schwichow plays the piano and has been downhill skiing since she was really young.

In the fall, she plans on studying psychology at Marquette University with the goal of being a crisis and abuse counselor.

She was inspired by her parents, who both work in the medical field. Her father, Rob Schwichow, is the nursing manager of Sherman Hospital’s emergency department, and her mother, Tina, recently graduated from nursing school. She also works in an emergency department.

“I realized that being blind would make being a doctor or nurse kind of hard because you have to look for signs in your patients,” Schwichow said. “I wouldn’t be able to see those, but I realized I could save a life just by being a counselor.

“I could talk someone out of committing suicide and try to help when they’re on substances. I want to be there to show them that someone does care and wants to listen to them.”

For now, she’s just looking forward to college, especially new social experiences and community service opportunities.

She’s been to visit twice, and so far, she hasn’t been asked any awkward questions, such as “How do you get a boyfriend?” or “Can you feel colors?”

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