Matthew Shifrin first discovered Lego bricks when he thrust his hands deep inside a crate crammed full of the toys.
His babysitter, Lilya Finkel, had spotted the discarded box on the side of the road and helped Shifrin, who is blind, haul it inside the car. She believed he would learn to enjoy them just as much as sighted children did. Shifrin, who was 5 at the time, said the crate launched a lifelong devotion.
“I loved the creativity of Lego,” said Shifrin, now 22, whose parents guided him through builds for most of his childhood in Massachusetts. “Plus, it was wonderful brain training for me: Blind people have trouble with spatial reason and spatial awareness, and Lego lets you go piece by piece to put a room together.”
The Lego-stuffed crate set Shifrin on a mission to make Lego play accessible to vision-impaired children around the globe, and his yearslong dedication paid off Wednesday when the Lego company debuted its first audio and Braille building instructions.
The instructions, available free online, come in English and detail how to put together four different toy sets.
Lego will test the instructions and gather feedback from vision-impaired users. At the end of the year, the company will reassess, fix any bugs and eventually develop audio and Braille instructions for every Lego set it sells, said Fenella Blaize Charity, Lego’s creative director. It will also translate the instructions into more languages.
Lego began exploring the idea after Shifrin reached out about two years ago.
The challenge the team faced was “pretty massive,” Charity said. Lego is an “extremely visual” form of play, she said, given that the entire experience centers on seeing what you’re building.
“We really just felt, ‘How do you even start with this project?’ ” Charity said. “It was only when Matthew came to us with this amazing solution … that we could feel it was possible.”
Shifrin and Finkel came up with their “solution” on Shifrin’s 13th birthday. Finkel had given Shifrin the “Battle of Alamut,” a Middle Eastern-style Lego palace. And she paired the gift with what proved a priceless treasure.
Finkel invented a unique name for every one of the more than 800 pieces in the palace set. Then she compiled a binder’s worth of building instructions in Braille that spelled out how to fit them all together.
For the first time in his life, Shifrin sat down at his kitchen table, binder close at hand, and completed a Lego build without any help, start to finish.
“I never thought I would be able to build Lego sets independently,” Shifrin said. “If you’re told all your life or know deep down that you couldn’t do something — and then suddenly there’s a way for you to do it …” He trailed off.
“It’s just an incredible feeling,” he said.
Shifrin knew immediately that he had to help other blind children find the same independence. Over the next half-decade, he and Finkel created similar instructions for about 45 other Lego sets, all published on a website they spun up, “Lego for the Blind.”
The duo eventually shifted away from Braille, establishing a system where Finkel typed up instructions and Shifrin tested them out by listening and following along.
Shifrin began reaching out to Lego several years ago to discuss his work, and in 2017 he finally connected with someone. The program debuted by the company this week is a high-tech version of what Shifrin and Finkel did for years on their own as “just two people in a living room,” as Shifrin put it.
Shifrin is thrilled to see his vision become a reality. He just wishes Finkel — who died about two years ago — were here to see it.
“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.”