American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) WAYS AND MEANS
by Matthew Shifrin
From the Editor: As NFB President Mark Riccobono has pointed out, LEGO is not only an engaging children's toy, but a tool for developing spatial awareness and engineering skills. (See the feature article in this issue of Future Reflections.) Matthew Shifrin, a blind high school senior from Massachusetts, is a LEGO aficionado. In this article he explains how he and a sighted friend developed verbal instructions to make LEGO fully accessible to blind builders.
It was the morning of my thirteenth birthday, and I was filled with the usual birthday excitement. I was most eager to see my friend Lilya.
Lilya, a family friend, could adapt just about anything. It was her philosophy that I, as a blind person, should have equal access to everything that my sighted peers had. On my birthday morning she arrived toting a large cardboard box and a binder. The box was labeled, "LEGO Battle of Almut, 841 pieces." The binder contained a set of Brailled instructions.
The gift caught me totally by surprise. I didn't think that, as a blind person, I'd ever be able to follow the instructions to build the creations depicted on the LEGO box without the help of a sighted person. But I was wrong.
My first encounter with LEGO came when I was four years old. My parents bought me a Duplo train. Duplo is the larger and more child-friendly brother of LEGO. I had great fun rearranging the cars, stacking them, and connecting the people and freight pieces in various ways.
My introduction to real LEGO came a year later. One day when I was five, Lilya was driving me home from a music lesson when suddenly she pulled over, stopped the car, and got out. A few seconds later she returned with something big and heavy creaking in her arms.
"Look what someone left on their sidewalk!" she said. "It has a 'Free' sign on it."
I opened the box and reached inside. It was filled to the brim with LEGO pieces. That box on the sidewalk began my love affair with LEGO.
I have always enjoyed touching things to get an idea of my surroundings, and I love to manipulate objects. LEGO proved to be the ultimate manipulative. I could sit for hours with a tray of LEGO pieces, sorting them and mixing them together. Above all I loved to build structures that were always new, always original, and always completely my own.
However, I knew I was not up to building real LEGO sets by myself. When my dad had free time, we'd sit down and build together. Dad would tell me which piece we needed, and I'd search until I found it. Then he would tell me where it was supposed to go. Little by little a structure would take shape.
It was a fun process, but it was incredibly time-consuming. Since my dad was often busy, sets tended to remain unfinished. Eventually I would take a few LEGO people out of the set and dump the rest into the LEGO bin for building my own creations.
As I grew older, I saw more and more of my friends having fun with LEGO. They followed intricate instructions, and independently they built X-wing starfighters from Star Wars and the Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter. Meanwhile, I was left behind with my own imagination. Once in a while my father and I built small LEGO action figures called Bionicles, but we never had time to build a large LEGO set. I drooled over large LEGO sets on the internet, never thinking that I'd be able to build them myself.
Lilya could make just about anything accessible for the blind. Making things accessible was a challenge she enjoyed, but LEGO was different. It was impossible to Braille the blueprints. The instruction manuals had no words, and they were too complicated to be turned into raised-line drawings. Building a model required so many steps that I couldn't copy them all. LEGO was the only thing that stubbornly resisted adaptation.
Or so I thought.
For my thirteenth birthday, Lilya had custom made instructions for the Battle of Almut, a Middle Eastern domed castle. How had she done it? Where did she find text-based instructions?
It turned out that she didn't find them--she created them! Lilya wrote out the instructions step by step, describing every blueprint, giving names to every kind of LEGO piece, figuring out the most logical sequence for a blind person to follow. She also sorted the LEGO pieces, putting the pieces necessary for each step into a Ziploc bag and labeling each bag in Braille.
Finally I was able to do something kids do all the time!
I knew I was too old for LEGO. I was thirteen, and most of my friends had stopped building at nine or ten. But I didn't care. LEGO is an excellent brain strain. It's a great way to improve spatial awareness and spatial reasoning--areas where blind people sometimes have trouble.
The text-based instructions are so complicated that it can be difficult for a sighted person to comprehend them. Try to figure out something like this sequence from Book 1 of the Lego Tower Bridge Set, No. 10214:
Key: F = flat.
FS = flat smooth.
Hor = horizontally.
Ver = vertically.
Symm = symmetrically.
PP = previous piece.
Step 1. Put a F 32x16 hor on the table. It is blue and symbolizes the Thames.
Step 2. Put a 6x1 with side holes ver on the left edge, in the middle (skipping the front five rows).
Step 3. Repeat symm on the right.
Step 1. Put a FS 4x2 hor to the left of the PP, in the middle (on the 8th and 9th rows).
Step 2. Put a 2x1 slide ver to the left, slide to the right.
Step 3. Repeat Steps 1-2 symm on the left.
Later sets were easier for Lilya; she realized she could type the instructions on the computer and email them to me. My screen reader took care of the rest, so there was no longer a need for her to Braille anything. Sometimes, though, there were difficulties. Sometimes Lilya made a mistake. More often I claimed she had made a mistake and then realized that I had misread her instructions. Some structures were so shaky that I needed another pair of hands to steady them until sections were connected ten steps later. For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to build a 1930s General Electric refrigerator. My only consolation was that the friend who finally put it together works as a watchmaker for Rolex--and it took him forty minutes!
Now, having described twenty LEGO sets, our jargon is clear and concise. The terms we use are similar to the piece names originally chosen by the LEGO Group. The instructions have grown shorter, and my fingers have grown more nimble.
I find that the most rewarding sets to build are Modular Buildings, which are LEGO-people-scale houses, shops, and fire stations. The buildings are realistic, and they include tons of interior detail. Couches, coffeemakers, and working elevators are all built from LEGO. As I build a set I develop a better sense of what a building looks like, how it is laid out and constructed. For blind people LEGO sets act as miniature 3D substitutes for real-life buildings in lieu of two-dimensional photographs.
LEGO allows me to see things that are impossible to explore by touch, such as the arches of a Middle Eastern palace or the towers of the Tower Bridge. I would like to get my instructions out to the blind community. I would like every blind person to be able to download the instructions, buy a set, have a sighted person sort the pieces, and feel on par with a sighted builder. I want every blind person to feel that the once impossible is now possible, that he or she now can build a miniature LEGO world.
Currently I have accessible instructions for the following LEGO sets (set numbers are in parentheses):
If you would like any of these accessible instructions, or if you would like to help make more LEGO sets accessible, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.