Overcoming Difficult Odds to Become a National Braille Champion

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Noa competed against 50 other kids in his bracket and came out first in national braille championship.

When Noa arrived in Alexandria at the age of six, he hadn’t spoken at school for three years.

Blind since birth and selectively mute, he was back in his home country able to speak French and Thai, but struggling to speak or connect in braille in his native tongue. Fast forward three years and Noa Hottin is stepping off a plane with his mom in Los Angeles, headed to his first national braille competition.

Two days later he’s feeling his way back onto his return plane as a national braille champion.

As a fourth-grade student at Mount Vernon Community School, Noa placed first in his age group competing with 50 other finalists from 27 states across the U.S. and Canada to win the top prize.

Noa got there by way of Baltimore, where he was named a finalist from among more than 1,100 contestants from 51 regional competitions and earned a spot to compete in the finals at the University of Southern California.

With a swish of his white cane, he makes his way through the halls of Mount Vernon tapping his way up a staircase and down a brightly lit hall, asking questions in sync with his steps.

Noa navigates his way around the world with his family pretty well. He’s already visited more than twenty countries. London tops his list of favorite places — he likes the Tube, the London Underground rail network.

But navigating a new section of the three-dimensional maze-like structure that is Mount Vernon each year as he advances grades, is a different matter. There are probably six different stairways and six different exits, so it gets kind of confusing at first, but then you get the hang of it. It takes a couple of months,” Noa says.

Slung over his shoulder across his chest is his nearly constant companion, his BrailleNote — a computer built specifically for people with visual impairments. About the size of a tablet and the thickness of a textbook, he uses his BrailleNote to read, write and to do his homework. It even connects to the internet.

When Noa adds his lunch and his clarinet to his daily load, it gets kind of heavy. But he says it’s worth the weight — it’s an important connection to the sighted world. “So, when I press on this button, do you see how these dots change? When I press this button, I go to the previous line, and when I press this button, I go to the next line. It’s not necessarily a sentence, it’s just what can fit. You run your fingers across these dots. If you see two extra buttons underneath, that’s a cursor. If I move this way it goes to this cell,” Noa explains while demonstrating how he reads and writes on his BrailleNote.

As a national champion, Noa received a check for $400, a Brailliant — a lighter version of his BrailleNote — and a new iPad, but he hasn’t touched the devices. They’re still shrink wrapped. He prefers his familiar and trusted BrailleNote and doesn’t care for bells and whistles.

And at the end of October, Noa was the Grand Marshal for the 22nd Annual Halloween parade in Del Ray on Sunday, October 28 at 2 p.m. along Mt. Vernon Avenue. Remember his face and if you see him at the parade, be sure to give him a shout out!