Blind Lego fan pioneers instructions for visually impaired

Photo: Lego Foundation
Photo: Lego Foundation 

Matthew Shifrin fell in love with Lego the second he plunged his tiny five-year-old hands into a box filled with it. It was a lucky roadside find by an eagle-eyed babysitter that would end up sparking a passion, and changing the course of his young life.

Lego has just released the very first Braille and audio instructions pioneered by Shifrin, opening a door for those with limited or no sight to tap into the magic of Lego.

They can be found on a dedicated website called Lego for the blind, with an initial release of four sets in addition to those already on the site. Before now instructions were only available as a series of images. 

Matthew, who is now 22, related the story recently to The Washington Post, detailing his journey from kindergarten mega-fan to the head offices of Lego, and forever changing the construction toy landscape for blind and visually-impaired children.

Matthew Shifrin Photo: Lego Foundation

Matthew Shifrin Photo: Lego Foundation

Lilya Finkel - who was Shifrin's babysitter and family friend - initially helped by converting the images to worded instructions, which were then made into raised dots for Matthew by a braille reader.

After uploading his instructions to his own website for others to use, Matthew was increasingly approached for more Lego set instructions from parents, requests he often had to refuse because they were too numerous.

His experience with this inspired him to lobby Lego to make instructions in braille and audio formats, and in 2017 he approached the company.

Four months ago Lego debuted its Braille Bricks sets and the company now aims to release every new set with braille and audio. The initiative has been funded by the Lego Foundation.

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Of the testing and development phase Matthew recounts, "I saw these kids having an 'aha' moment and saying 'Hey, we wanted to do this for years and now you've given us the opportunity to do this."

"Now Lego has stepped up their game and they're giving us the opportunity to build like our sighted siblings." 

Shifrin told Mashable, "I just want to foster as many blind Lego addicts as I can and help them get into the hobby because it's helped me so much... I really want to give back to these kids."

Sadly Finkel died of cancer two years ago and won't see the success she helped create. Her death inspired Shifrin to keep developing the project and approaching Lego, a strategy that worked.

"I think she'd be very glad that we came this far," Shifrin said. "We'd always hoped that it would - we weren't sure it would - but I think she'd be happy."