Lifestyle & Culture

How One Blind Man’s Persistence Made Lego Accessible

The toy brick building company didn’t have a way for people who couldn’t see to build their sets—until Matthew Shifrin showed them how.

11.09.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

If you’re a multinational company, the thing you’ll most care about — other than basic ethics, if you’re one of the good guys — is how many people are buying your product. More sales means more money, and more money means more options.

So it’s surprising how slow most companies are to realise the importance of accessibility. In the UK alone, people with disabilities have an estimated purchasing power of £249bn. Yet industries from music to movies to games to technology are slow to realise the necessity for making change to take advantage of the so-called ‘purple pound.’

The same was true for Lego, everyone’s favourite toy brick builders. Although the Danish company has spent almost 90 years enthralling people young and old with its adventurous building sets, the boxes — often made up of thousands of pieces — were only accompanied by instructions in pictures.


Brain training

That’s no good if you’re blind.

But blind kids fell in love with the product nonetheless. One such person was Matthew Shifrin, whose babysitter found a box of Lego bricks by the side of the road when he was five years old. He told the Washington Post (WP) that just driving his hand into the box and feeling the pieces created a lifelong devotion — something that expanded his creativity, and provided him with “wonderful brain training.”

Why? Because, as he adds to the paper: “Blind people have trouble with spatial reasoning and spatial awareness, and Lego lets you go piece by piece to put a room together.”


Low-tech solution

Lego didn’t think it would be possible to adapt their instructions to meet blind people’s needs.

But it turns out Shifrin already had a solution. As a gift for his 13th birthday, his sitter, Lilya Finkel, gifted him a ‘Battle of Alamut’ set. Most importantly, she spent an inordinate amount of time inventing a unique name for each of the more than 800 pieces, and compiling an entire binder of instructions in Braille that spelled out how to fit the pieces together.

This was the first time Shifrin was able to build a set on his own. And he was blown away.

“If you’re told all your life or know deep down that you couldn’t do something — and then suddenly there’s a way for you to do it …” he told WP, trailing off.

“It’s just an incredible feeling.”

The pair then worked on instructions for around 45 lego sets, each of which took a month to do, and published them on a site called Lego for the Blind.


High-tech application

After a while, Shifrin decided to approach Lego directly to see if they would pick up his idea. This took perseverance, but after constantly getting in touch with the company’s Creative Play Lab he achieved the impossible: He encouraged Lego to release its own audio and braille building instructions.

The instructions are available online, for free, and explain in English how to put together four sets: Lego Movie 2, Lego City, Lego Friends and Lego Classic. Customers simply need to visit Lego’s website and choose the relevant instructions, feeding the Braille guidelines through a Braille reader.

The result of almost two years of work alongside employees, the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Shifrin, who acted as a paid consultant, the new instructions are made from the same 3D representations of the sets used to make current picture guides. Lego has developed a way of using this information to (mostly) automate the process.

In the future, it’s hoped that Lego will be able to fully automate the instruction process and provide braille and audio instructions with every Lego product.

Lego’s creative director, Fenella Blaize Charity, told WP that it was something they’d always wanted to address — how to make Lego for visually impaired and blind children, so that “as many kids as possible” could enjoy the Lego experience.

“That’s the goal: We want to make Lego something that every kid can tap into,” Charity added.

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