Legos have long reminded people of Braille, a system based on configurations of six raised dots that blind people read with their fingertips. Now the resemblance is more than just coincidence.
The Lego Foundation, which is funded by the Lego Group, the Danish toy company that makes the blocks, has announced a new project that will repurpose the usual knobs atop the bricks as Braille dots. The project, called Lego Braille Bricks, is in a pilot phase and is expected to be released in partnership with schools and associations for the blind in 2020.
“When they get Lego in their hands, it’s intuitive for them,” said Diana Ringe Krogh, who is overseeing the project for the Lego Foundation. “They learn Braille almost without noticing that they are learning.”
Advocates say the product could transform reading for blind and visually impaired children, helping to combat what has been called a “Braille literacy crisis.” Once widely taught in schools for the blind, Braille has fallen by the wayside since the 1970s, when schools started pushing children with any sight at all to rely on magnified print. And an explosion of accessible technologies, including audiobooks, apps and screen readers, has strengthened reliance on audio, which advocates say cannot effectively teach critical skills like spelling and grammar, let alone complicated math.
“Audio can give you information, but it can’t give you literacy,” said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.
Paul Parravano, who went blind from retinal cancer as a toddler, said Braille was critical to his job working in government relations at MIT. He uses it to write and give speeches, keep track of his calendar and take notes in meetings.
“If I’m sitting in a meeting and my boss asks me a question about a piece of information, I can’t go stick an earphone in my ear,” Parravano said.
Parravano learned Braille on his own. His mother taught him at home, he said, using a homemade block of wood and six marbles, which represented the six dots in the code.
Today, children often learn to write on a heavy machine that looks like a typewriter, but it feels clunky and can differentiate them from their friends in day care and school, according to Thorkild Olesen, president of the Danish Association of the Blind. His organization first pitched the idea of Braille building blocks to Lego in 2011, followed by the Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in Brazil, which separately proposed the idea in 2017.
“Many blind children give up learning Braille or will not be introduced to Braille in the first place,” Olesen said.
There have been other attempts to make learning Braille more appealing, including alphabet blocks and playing cards. But the Lego bricks, which have built-in mainstream appeal and offer the chance to play around with words, or even play a makeshift game of Scrabble, seem to have a unique appeal.
“I don’t know of any other efforts that combine learning and play as thoroughly as Lego Braille bricks,” Olesen said.
The Braille bricks have been tested in schools and community centers in Brazil, Denmark, Norway and Britain. And, in the fall, the pilot program will expand to Germany, France, Mexico and the United States, according to the Lego Foundation.
After taking in feedback, Lego will roll out the Braille bricks next year, the foundation said. The Lego sets will be free for children through associations for the blind and schools.