Like most 16 year olds, Green Bay native Baylee Alger loves playing video games. Watching him play the fighting game Mortal Kombat in his living room, he appears to be no different than any other teenager. However, there’s one obstacle that prevents him from playing any video game he wants. He can’t see the TV screen.
“I was diagnosed with cancer which destroyed my optic nerves so I was totally blind by the time I was four,” Alger said.
Around that time, Alger’s family began teaching him how to read braille. He fell in love with literature.
“They started giving me small books and I would just read them over and over and over again,” Alger said.
By second grade, Alger could speed read braille. He decided to try his hand at the Braille Challenge, an annual statewide competition where his braille comprehension, spelling and reading skills were put to the test.
The top 60 scores nationwide travel to Los Angeles to compete for a national championship. Alger has qualified for the championship six times. While that’s an impressive feat, spend any time with Alger and it’s clear that his reading skills are only a small fraction of his talent. From fifth through seventh grade, Alger played trumpet in his school’s band. One day, a friend convinced him to try his hand behind the drum kit.
“I just sat there and kept working at it, and within a couple months I was really, really good at it,” Alger said.
Alger now plays drums in the school band. His friends also introduced him to video games. He’s able to play games that take place in two-dimensional space. He uses stereo sound and a vibrating controller to hear and feel his position on the screen. Spoken computer narration allows him to navigate menus and applications on his video game console, laptop, and cell phone. Technology continues to make Alger’s hobbies more accessible, but his first love will always be books.
“There’s a lot of movies that don’t have audio description and there’s a lot of games I can’t play, but there’s no book I can’t read,” Alger said.
His affinity for reading inspired him to start writing. Alger eventually hopes to build a career writing fantasy novels. Between his reading, writing, gaming and musical skills, Alger says his only real obstacle are the stereotypes people hold about visually impaired people.
“I’m a normal teenager,” Alger said, “And I wish more people would just look past the fact that I can’t see and just realize that I’m just trying to be a normal teenager.”