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

Braille Takes Flight

On flights everywhere we always hear the same speech, “In a few moments, the flight attendants will be passing around the cabin to offer you hot or cold drinks, as well as a light snack. Alcoholic drinks are also available for purchase. Please be sure to check our menus located in your seat compartment. Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.” What if the menu wasn’t accessible for you to read? Between the 200 passengers and the 4-6 flight attendants, it’s going to be quite difficult to get the flight attendant to read the menu to you!

Now imagine that all of the menus are available in braille for you to read. The flight attendant comes by and asks you if you would like to order a drink or a snack and you can independently order for yourself. If the couple next to you can order a drink right off the menu, you should have every right to have a menu you can read, too.IMG_1940.JPG

Vice President of Development and Major Gifts, Joe Quintanilla, flies regularly throughout the United States to meet with braille readers. On his flights he is often told that he can have a menu read to him due to a lack of braille menus on airplanes. “Wouldn’t it be great to not have to worry about rushing through TSA while hoping that the lines at the concession stands in the airport terminal are not too long? Wouldn’t it be less stressful if you knew that when you get on the plane there are great food options available to you and that you will actually know what they are, if there were braille menus?” We at National Braille Press are determined to make print materials accessible for blind users.

Proofreader Nallym Bravo loves to travel and experience new things. She finds it disheartening when she cannot assert her independence through reading her own menu. “Life looks extra wonderful from thirty thousand feet. Add some snacks, a cocktail, and a movie, and the route to my next vacation is almost perfect. The one problem? I have no idea what said cocktails, snacks, and movies are. While I do appreciate the in-flight safety information being in braille in case I need it—which I hope I never do—I’ll be glad I read it. But I am far more likely to select a drink than an exit. I can guarantee that if airlines started handing out braille versions of their food and entertainment offerings, I would not be the only blind person to be sipping a glass of their finest wine in the clouds.”

menus

 

The Freedom of Independent Voting

I will always remember my first time voting; it was November 4, 2008, and I was finally old enough to vote! My best friend, Michelle, and I drove to our polling place. I had heard that there were machines that made it possible for a blind person to vote independently, so I asked the poll worker if I could use one. Her response was polite but disappointing: The machine was not working, and could my friend help me out?

Braille ballot from Rhode Island

Now that I’m older and somewhat wiser, I know that federal law requires that there be one working accessible voting machine at every polling place. I know that I could and should have asked for someone to try to get the machine to work. Failing that, I should have filed a complaint with my state’s board of elections. But I didn’t know any of this then, and luckily I trusted Michelle. We filled out our ballots, and off to class I went, proudly displaying my “I Voted” sticker for the world to see.

"I Voted" buttonMy first experience voting independently did not happen until 2014. In the intervening years, I could not go to my polling place, and had to fill out an absentee ballot. It is impossible to put into words exactly how free I felt when I voted independently for the first time. 2014 was a completely different experience. I didn’t even have to ask for the accessible voting machine! The machine was set up, and I was left to my own devices, just like anyone else. No one else touched my ballot, and no one else could even see what I was doing as it is possible to black out the screen of the accessible voting machine. Total privacy and independence, exactly what voting should be!

It boggles my mind that before the Help America Vote Act in 2002, not voting independently was the norm for disabled Americans. I’ve heard stories of blind people having to go into the voting booth with three different people: one from each party and a third person to fill out the ballot. While we’ve come a long way from then, there is still work to do.

While accessible voting machines are required at polling locations, most states don’t have provisions for absentee voting. Absentee voting also needs to be accessible, and everyone—poll workers and citizens with disabilities—need to be aware of the right for everyone to vote independently. As this monumental election year progresses, it is imperative that we get out there and vote. Voting is a right we sometimes take for granted, but it is one that many have fought for, and it is the best way we have to create change.

Nallym Bravo works at National Braille Press (NBP) as a braille proofreader. NBP has produced braille voting materials for several states and hopes that more states provide accessible voting materials in the future.

Twins In Poetry and In Braille

By Daniel Simpson
A little over a year ago, a box from my publisher, Poets Wear Prada, containing twenty complimentary copies of my new book of poems, School for the Blind, landed on my front porch. I tore it open; rushing toward a moment I had long anticipated—that moment when, for the first time, I would hold my own book. I caressed its smooth cover, traced its binding, sniffed the paper, and turned a few pages. “Mine,” I thought. “I wrote this. I have officially joined the ranks of authors with a book.” People wrote thoughtful, even glowing, reviews. People bought the book, either directly from me at readings and conferences, or online through Amazon. It was all quite thrilling.

Book Covers of School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to MeAt about the same time, MutualMuse Press came out with my identical twin brother Dave’s poetry collection entitled The Way Love Comes to Me. When I received my copy, I went through a similar routine of touching and sniffing. I could even make out the general shape of his poems through the slightly embossed print. It, too, got a warm welcome into this world, garnering great reviews, generating a nice volume of sales, and spawning some memorable readings. (In fact, after Dave’s reading from The Way Love Comes to Me at New York University, poet Stephen Kuusisto wrote, “I believe he gave the finest reading I’ve ever heard.”)

Still, one thing separated our experience as authors from that of our sighted counterparts: We couldn’t actually read directly from our own books. I could only extrapolate what it must be like by reading from a loose-leaf binder of pages I had brailled myself, or by copying an electronic version of the final manuscript into my notetaker.

simpson-brothers

Dan Simpson with this twin brother, Dave, at the age of three.

Suddenly, that all changed. Diane Croft read our books and decided they ought to be in braille. To make all of this even sweeter, National Braille Press decided to bind our two books into one braille volume. Here we were, twins in braille, with my book coming just before Dave’s, in accordance with our birth order.

All of this took on even greater poignancy and significance with Dave’s death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on December 1, 2015. He never actually got to hold our books in braille, but he knew they were on the way, and it pleased him immensely.

It’s difficult to articulate just how happy having my own book in braille from National Braille Press makes me, but the biggest gift of all is having the essence of my brother’s heart and mind, enshrined in his work, available to me, nestled right next to my own book, bound together in one braille volume which I can pull from the shelf and read any time I like.

Note: The braille edition of Dan and David’s collections (School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to Me) are available from National Braille Press for $10. Print editions can be purchased through Amazon.

How a Tactile Map is Created

Tactile maps are used to guide visually impaired and blind users in new surroundings like airports, museums, and even cities. Tactile maps use raised points, lines, and textures to represent objects, identify rooms, and denote accessible areas. Creating tactile maps at National Braille Press is a labor-intensive process that requires a keen eye for detail and a steady hand.

A print map and final tactile map design

A print map and final tactile map design

Step 1: Transcription

The design of a tactile map starts with a transcriber. Our tactile graphic artist and transcriber, Colleen Rosenberg, explains how the process works:

Whitney:  What are your first steps when making a tactile map?

Colleen:  When I get a floor plan, I say: What is this for? It’s helpful to know if it’s for orientation and mobility or a student using it in college. Is it for someone who is going to be working at a specific location? Everything needs to be exact. That’s really the most important part.

art supplies

Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs

Whitney:  Tell me more about the art of collage.

Colleen:  You can do a lot of things with collage. Collage is building things up with textures. I use sand paper, dots, string or other materials depending on the map. I then glue a specific texture on to create a raised drawing that can be built higher or lower to differentiate a specific area.
Photo caption: Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs.

Step 2: Proofreading

Once the initial design for a tactile map is created, a blind proofreader ensures it is accessible. Nallym Bravo, who regularly proofreads tactile graphics, explains:

Whitney:  What is the most important part of the proofreading step?

Nallym:  It’s really important that it is accurate. A lot of tactile maps are crowded with all kinds of tactile sensations. It’s critical for the graphic to be accurate and delineated cleanly so the maps are efficient to use.

thermoform machine

A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics

Step 3: Reproduction

Once the tactile map is found to be accurate and easy to read, we prepare it for reproduction. Jorge Antunes, who works in our finishing department and operates the thermoform machine, explains how:

Photo caption: A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics.

Whitney:  How do you reprint the master collaged copy?

Jorge:  The tactile image is placed on a plate, which has a vacuum underneath. I place a thermoform sheet over the original collaged master copy. The machine is closed tightly to create a nice seal. Heat is applied from the top so the plastic will melt. Once this process happens, you have a reprint copy of the master. This creates the tactile graphic.

National Braille Press creates over 100,000 tactile graphics each year including graphics in textbooks, children’s picture books, and for organizations wishing to make their information more accessible to blind and visually impaired people. Recently, NBP created tactile maps for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.