Inaugural Abacus Bee Offers Iowa Students With Vision Loss an Accessible Space to Compete

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This article was written by Biong M. Biong on November 19, 2023, and published by the Des Moines Register.  

No calculators allowed here — students who receive vision services from the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired took part in Iowa’s first Abacus Bee on Saturday.

The Abacus Bee is a competition in which students solve a series of math problems with nothing but an abacus, a counting tool with rods or wires and movable beads that can be used to solve equations. According to the American Printing House for the Blind, the abacus remains one of the most effective tools for teaching math basics to students who are blind or have low vision.

Attendees sitting in a room at desks

“The abacus is very unique to students that are blind or visually impaired,” said Sara Larkin, math consultant for the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “Most classrooms are not using an abacus, but for students that are blind, it’s what they use in place of paper and pencil because … if they don’t have any vision, they’re not going to pick up a pencil or a pen and write their answers down.”

The bee had an auditory section, where Larkin was reading off various equations to the respective groups, and a written portion, where participants answered questions that were either in large print or Braille.

Students took a preliminary test and were sorted into space-themed groups based on their abilities. The groups included: Blasters, Flyers, Riders, Movers, Starters and Rovers.

Iowa students will advance to national Abacus Bee

Those who placed first from each team, excluding Rover, are going on to compete in nationals in Louisville. The students moving on include: Dylan Carter, Jordyn Robbins, Kayla Bartholomew, Genti Wyatt and Jaidyn Burge.

Riders 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place medals with blue ribbon.

“This is something that is part of [the students’] daily life, and so they get to show off and let others see what they get to do on a regular basis,” Larkin said. “So often, things that are done in the classroom — and competitions — are not made accessible for them, so they don’t get that Braille page … or that large print page that we get them. So often, accessibility is left out of competitions that are out there at the schools, so everything here has Braille or large print so they can access all of it.”

Wyatt, a student in the post-senior learning for ultimate success program offered by the Iowa School for the Deaf, said he practiced for the bee by playing a math game he found online and solving the problems mentally.

“Math is genuinely cool concept and it could be used in a lot of real life situations,” Wyatt said.