Niklas Ham is just your typical 11-year-old who loves to read, except he just shattered his school’s record for reading — and he did it all while reading in braille.
The hardworking fifth grader, who lost his vision at age 8 due to a progressive genetic disorder, took part in the 100 Book Challenge initiated by the American Reading Company. Schools all across the country participate in the reading challenge that asks students to read a certain amount — usually between 15 and 30 minutes each day — for the entire school year with the amount of time spent reading recorded as “steps.”
At Niklas’s school, 15 minutes of reading = 1 step. At his middle school level, the challenge offers incentives for meeting milestones and even offers a special incentive reading folder up to 800 steps.
But the American Reading Company had its work cut out for them when they had to issue Niklas an extra special folder when he hit 1,100 steps by March. This was not only a first for his school, but a virtual first for a child his age nationwide! And he’s not stopping yet.
To Niklas, reading is no big deal — it’s just something he does and he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about, despite the fact that he’s logged nearly 300 hours of reading this school year so far. To Niklas, books like The Secret Garden are just plain fun. “I don’t really have a favorite,” the avid reader tells me, while I chat with his father over the phone about his accomplishments. His father goes on to inform me Niklas is even reading as we speak.
Niklas is a student at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) and lives in St. Augustine, FL, with his dad, Doug, 56, a retired fire lieutenant and paramedic, and mother, Elizabeth, 41, a registered nurse anesthetist with the University of Florida Health system,. Their family also includes Niklas’ brother, Koltyn, 8, sister, Isabell, 7, and 5-year-old triplet brothers, Beau, Aiden, and Carson. He’s also joined by his stepsiblings, Kristen, 30, Emily, 29, Becca, 25, and Doug the III, 24.
Although his family can’t pinpoint the exact day Niklas went completely blind, they now know that he was born with a genetic disorder called familial exudative vitreoretinopathy (FEVER), which causes progressive vision loss. Niklas, who is adopted, was born in Russia, and while his parents did not have access to his complete medical history, they know he was born prematurely. Because premature babies can often have vision problems, Niklas’ doctors contributed his poor vision to prematurity. But as he got older and his vision grew progressively worse, by age 8 he lost the ability to see completely.
“He started to have vision problems, we got him glasses, and then he said, ‘I can’t see,'” recalls Ham. His parents spent the next years taking Niklas to different specialists and working to find him resources to help. Through it all, Ham says Niklas maintained a positive attitude and took his condition on in the most determined way.
“He’s taken on the cane and the braille and he’s just a very motivated little kid,” says Ham.
After doing some research, the family found the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and fell in love with the family atmosphere and educational opportunities they provide. “It’s one of the best in the world,” comments Ham. Doug and Elizabeth ended up moving their clan of six young children from Michigan to Florida last July so Niklas could enroll as a student there and have access to the resources he needed to succeed.
The school current enrollment includes 600 students from preschool to high school, with about 300 visually-impaired students and 300 hearing-impaired students. Niklas has been able to thrive in his classroom’s intimate hands-on setting of only six students. And while he was first able to start reading braille as a student at Chatfield School in Lapeer, MI, where he first lost his vision, it wasn’t until Niklas enrolled at FSDB that he was able to become fluent and learn to read more easily thanks to contracted braille, a condensed version of braille reading that allows words to be read whole, instead of letter-by-letter. He actually struggled with reading at first, but was encouraged by this teacher, April Wallace, to keep reading to improve his skills.
I guess you could say Niklas took that encouragement to heart.
And while Niklas’s impressive feat has garnered attention from his school, the American Reading Company (who contacted him personally), and the media after he went viral on a Reddit thread, there is only one thing that Niklas hopes to gain from his accomplishments: his own guide dog. Currently on the waiting list to receive his guide dog from the MIRA Foundation in fall 2018, Niklas is using his reading chops to bring more attention to the Foundation, which currently only has funding to donate eight dogs a year to students in need. The more people who donate to the MIRA Foundation, the faster Niklas might be able to get his very own dog, who we hope will enjoy hearing a good story now and then.
But no matter what, Niklas’s parents remains proud of how far their son has come and how his positive encourages countless others around him.
“We’re proud of how he’s handled everything that most,” says Ham. “He doesn’t let stuff get him down, he’s a hard worker, and he’s very smart. He knows more than me [laughs], but he does this all on his own.”