AIKEN -- Ryan Uhle loves to feel every word at the tips of his fingers when he reads.
"I could just listen to the books, but I'd rather read it," he said. "It's really easy."
The Schofield Middle School seventh-grader said reading Braille does not set him apart from his friends and classmates. His mastery of the reading form, however, has made him a standout at his school and in the state.
In February, Ryan, who lost his sight at age 3, beat out 11 other seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders to place first in the junior varsity division at the South Carolina Regional Braille Challenge. It was his second win in the challenge, and in two weeks he will find out whether he'll be participating in the national competition.
Denise Hyman, who teaches the visually impaired for Aiken County schools, said Ryan's love of geography and reading helped him edge out his competitors. Hyman has taught Ryan since fourth grade and has seen his love for reading and his tenacity grow.
"He really does just have the aptitude," she said. "He's always been striving to do his best. He's a fast learner, and I think he always focuses on his abilities instead of his limitations."
When he was 6 months old Ryan was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye, said his mother, Keisha Uhle. He endured chemotherapy, tests and regular hospital visits as an infant. The disease started in one eye and spread to the second one just as he was learning his letters and shapes, Uhle said.
"We had already started reading to him, and he loved it even then. He had memorized a lot of the stories," she said. "There was a certain feeling of loss, but with Braille he can learn anything."
The Uhles eventually moved to Keisha Uhle's hometown of Aiken to be closer to family for moral support. She said she wanted to encourage Ryan's love of books and make sure he had all the right tools to succeed.
She read to him using books with standard and Braille text. Ryan learned the reading form quickly, she said. At one point, Uhle said, she noticed that her son was not as comfortable reading Braille in front of his classmates as he was at home.
"He was shy about it in third or fourth grade," she said. "He does not like to have one thing to set him apart. It was hard for him to accept at first."
Ryan said he does not remember a time when he did not love reading Braille. In class he uses his electronic note taker, a keyboard with Braille letters. He stores what he types to a disc for his writing assignments and other class work. For math assignments, he uses the Perkins Braille Writer, which embosses Braille math symbols and numbers.
He does the work differently, but he's on pace with his peers.
"I don't really feel any different," he said. "I can talk to everybody. It's the same."
He has taken up the cello and will soon start learning to read Braille music, Hyman said. For now, he plays the instrument by memorization.
Ryan said he is eager to find out whether he scored high enough in the competition to compete against national winners. The challenge tested his speed, reading comprehension and tactical map-reading skills.
"I didn't think I was going to win since other older kids were in it," he said. "I think I might have a little bit of a better chance this time."