How a Dedicated Friendship Led LEGO to Create Braille Instructions for Visually Impaired Children
The company will launch a testing phase of its LEGO Audio & Braille Building Instructions on Aug. 28
Matt Shifrin, from Newton, Massachusetts, has always loved playing with LEGOs. Born blind, he would spend hours working to build the toy sets with the help of his family and friends.
That all changed when his friend Lilya Finkel, then 45, worked tirelessly to manually translate a set of instructions to Braille for Shifrin. She presented him with the binder full of instructions to build the LEGO Prince of Persia Battle of Alamut on his 13th birthday.
“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible. With these Braille instructions, everything really clicked,” Shifrin, now 22, tells PEOPLE. “She wrote [the instructions] out on her own, she made names for all the parts. She was of the opinion that I, as a blind child, should have access to everything that my sighted friends have access to.”
After that, the friends worked together to translate, producing Braille instructions for more than 20 LEGO sets. Now, Shifrin is doing the same thing for children everywhere — and partnering with LEGO Group to do it.
In 2016, Shifrin and Finkel launched a website for the project called Lego for the Blind, where players can download instructions for over two dozen sets.
After Finkel died in 2017 at age 52, Shifrin was determined to honor her memory by doing for other kids what Finkel did for him. That year, he teamed up with LEGO Group to create LEGO® Audio & Braille Building Instructions, customized instructions for the blind or visually impaired.
“When she died I promised myself that I would not let this project rest until LEGO took action. Now they have,” Shifrin says. “It’s been a wonderful journey with LEGO. I’m incredibly glad that LEGO is doing a trial run because they’re able to see reactions. It’s been an incredible experience and I’m very glad that I’m able to help them do this.”
After Shifrin presented LEGO with the idea, the group teamed up with the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which developed an AI software specifically to translate LEGO data to text-based descriptions for Braille and voice instructions.
Four sets will be made available to blind or visually impaired users through a free app in a testing phase from Aug. 28 to Dec. 31.
“We want to reach as many children as we can and it’s amazing if we can open play opportunities to kids that are visually impaired or blind. It’s really incredible and inspiring,” LEGO spokesperson Fenella Charity tells PEOPLE.
“We’ve had kids say to us, ‘I never knew what a helicopter looked like before.’ Now they know what it looks like from the LEGO model. They’re really getting to feel something that they would never have had the chance to understand how it looked if they didn’t build it from LEGO.
After the testing phase, the company will begin working on building instructions for even more sets.
“If Lilya hadn’t bought me that binder, none of this would have happened. My goal has always been to make as many experiences accessible to the blind as possible, whatever they may be,” Shifrin says.
“The fact that they can now access and build LEGO sets on their own … it’s very important to instill confidence and independence in these kids. I think the phrase, ‘Look, mom! I built this! Look what I built!’ I think that’s really important for blind kids because before they didn’t really have that ability. But now with the help of these text-based instructions they can brag to all their friends.”