How a blind Lego enthusiast inspired the company to make braille and audio instructions
Matthew Shifrin and his late family friend Lilya Finkel spent years posting braille Lego instructions online
When Matthew Shifrin turned 13, he got a birthday present from his family friend Lilya Finkel that changed his life.
"Lilya came over to my house and with her she brought this big cardboard box and this big fat binder as thick as a textbook," Shifrin told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
"And in this big cardboard box was an 843-piece Middle Eastern Lego palace. And in the big fat binder were instructions that Lilya brailled by hand on a braille typewriter."
His mind was blown. As a blind kid, Shifrin had never before been able complete a Lego set on his own.
"I never thought that I'd be able to build Lego sets as a blind person. I mean, it was about as likely as being able to drive a car," he said.
"Once she gave me these instructions, I realized that I could do it and that blind kids deserved these kind of sets and these kinds of experiences."
Now the 22-year-old Boston-based Lego enthusiast and accessibility advocate is partnering with the Danish toy manufacturer to make sure the next generation can have that.
Honouring his friend's memory
Lego announced Wednesday it is launching a pilot program to provide accessible audio and braille instructions, inspired by Finkel and Shifrin.
The company has posted the new, AI-generated instructions for four major Lego sets online. Users can access them using a screen reader that reads text out loud, or a braille reader that converts text to braille on a touch pad. People who don't have access to either can play the audio instructions directly on the site.
The company says it will gather user feedback on the first sets, and then release more accessible instructions in the first half of 2020.
It's a new initiative for Lego, but one that was a long time coming for Shifrin.
For years after that first Lego experience, he and Finkel worked together to translate Lego kit instructions to braille and post them online for other fans to use.
Then Finkel died in 2017.
"When she died, I thought to myself that I need to reach out to Lego. I need to keep this project going because blind kids don't have Lilyas in their lives," Shifrin said.
He would email the company regularly, he explained, but struggled to get past the customer service reps and talk to someone who could really make it happen.
But the fanfare over a short PBS documentary about Finkel and Shifrin's work called How Lego Helps Blind People See inspired him to keep trying. Eventually, he made contact with someone at Lego and pitched his idea.
"It has been an honour to work with Matthew, his passion and energy are truly inspiring," Fenella Blaize Charity, creative director of Lego Group, said in a press release.
"But most importantly his project will help visually impaired children around the world experience the same joy of building and pride of creation that all our fans feel."
'A sense of what the world is like'
Shifrin says working with Legos helps blind and visually impaired kids better understand the world around them.
"Lego sets enable blind children to really get a sense of what the world is like, to get a sense of things that they can't see — buildings, cars, spaceships, all these things that sighted people see every day but blind kids know of, but have never personally experienced," he said.
A blind child might have an idea that certain structures — like the Empire State Building — are culturally important, but it's hard for them to grasp how they look or take up space in the world.
"But when they build these buildings themselves, they become intimately familiar with the shaping of these buildings and why these buildings matter," he said. "It's kind of a mix of an architecture lesson and history."
Shifrin is now working with Lego to test the new instructions with blind and visually impaired children.
"I had a building event last week that I ran, and these kids were on fire," he said.
"They were having aha moments left and right, and they really had that same experience that I'd had on my 13th birthday."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Matthew Shifrin produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.