LEGO for the Blind

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. That 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 never thought that as a blind person, I’d be able to follow the instructions to build what’s depicted on the box without sighted assistance. But I was wrong.

My first introduction to LEGO came when I was 5. Lilya and I found a crate of LEGO on the sidewalk, and I’ve been a fan of it ever since. As I grew older, I saw more and more of my friends having fun with LEGO; they followed intricate instructions, and independently built X-wing starfighters from Star Wars and the Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter. Meanwhile, I was left behind with my own imagination. I drooled over large LEGO sets on the Internet, never thinking that I’d be able to build them myself.

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. When Lilya gave me instructions for the Battle of Almut, I wondered, “Where did she find text-based instructions?” She didn’t find them—she created them!

Lilya brailled the instructions step by step, describing every blueprint, naming every kind of piece, and figuring out the most logical sequence for a blind person to follow. She also sorted the pieces for each step into Ziploc bags and labeled them in braille. Finally I was able to do something kids do all the time!

Later sets were easier for Lilya; she realized she could just type the instructions on the computer and e-mail them to me, and my computer took care of the rest. So there was no need to braille anything.

Having described over 20 LEGO sets, (available from http://www.legofortheblind.com) our jargon is clear and concise. Our instructions have grown shorter, and my fingers have grown more nimble. For me, the most rewarding sets to build are Modular Buildings, which are LEGO-PEOPLE-SCALE houses, shops, and fire stations. The buildings include tons of interior detail—couches, coffee makers, and working elevators, all built from LEGO.

As I build a set I develop a better sense of what a building looks like and how it is laid out. LEGO allows me to see things that are impossible to touch, such as the arches of a Middle Eastern palace or the towers of the Tower Bridge. For blind people, LEGO sets act as miniature 3D substitutes for real-life buildings in lieu of two-dimensional photographs. They’re also an excellent brain strain, improving spatial awareness and spatial reasoning—areas where blind people sometimes struggle. 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 would like every blind person to feel that the once impossible is now possible; that they can now build a miniature LEGO world.

To download accessible instructions for LEGO sets, please visit http://www.legofortheblind.com.

Also, check out the LEGO tips on NBP’s Great Expectations website:

http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/programs/gep/iggy/iggy-lego.html

By Matthew Shifrin

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