Matthew Shifrin and the fabulous world of accessible LEGOs.

“Magic that came right out of a box”.

Lilya Finkel, Matthew's nanny found an abandoned box of LEGOs at the foot of a road and decided to take it with her, because even though Matthew was blind she believed that he could also have fun putting things together just like the children without visual impairment.

At that time, five-year old Matthew, from Massachusetts, discovered in that box of small bricks, what would become his greatest hobby.

It was the "Bionics" LEGO set. A simple robot he could assemble alongside his parents but Matthew wanted more; because he realized that his classmates from school were putting together spaceships, boats and anything they could get their hands on without any difficulty, but when he asked them: "how did they do it" they replied dumbfounded: "Huh, because we have the instructions"; and that was something that Matthew did not have the luxury to afford.

Although the next four years he continued building simple LEGOs with the help of his parents and his nanny, he could not find a method that would help him interact with the game independently. The turning point would come on his 13th birthday when Lilya gave him the "Battle of Alamut" LEGO set, an Arab palace that was the most complex set he had put together until then.

Can you imagine a blind child trying to find shape of the different pieces to put the set together?  Seems impossible right?

This gift encouraged Matthew to create a brik recognition system that would allow him to place each of the pieces without making any mistake.

Unable to identify the pieces by color, he spent hours and hours labeling more than 800 pieces with the Braille system and cataloging them by name.

For Matthew it was a brain challenge since, as we all know, blind people have problems with the space environment, but he has always said he loves the creativity of LEGO and the way it allows one to put together a set step by step.

Upon finishing constructing his birthday present, Matthew realized that he could help other blind children play with LEGOs and then takes his idea to the next level.

Having the Braille recognition system ready for the bricks and with the help of her nanny who also became her assistant and friend, he spent the next five years labeling more than 40 sets of the brand. These labels were published on the website: through a system that could read the instructions using Braille support programs for the visually impaired.

Matthew says that as soon as they created the site and uploaded the first instructions they received thousands of emails from parents with blind children who wanted to know about the sets, but also from blind parents with children who could see and who told him that they finally understood their children's fascination with LEGO.

But Matthew was not satisfied with Braille and also experimented with written instructions that were narrated through screen readers.

He and Lilya kept working and writing instructions, using their weekends, vacations, holidays, and any minute they could spare.

For Matthew, the feeling of being able to build sets on his own without receiving instructions or help from anyone, brought him great happiness; quoting him: "when people tell you throughout your life that you will not be able to do something and suddenly you realize that there is a way to do it, your reality changes".

We must acknowledge all the hard work they both put into the project since creating the instructions for each set took them about a month.

They kept working on their own for several more years, but Matthew's motivation led him to contact the LEGO Creative Play Lab in 2017.

This is the LEGO division that is responsible for the creation of new toys and together with the Austrian AI Research Institute, employees discovered how to convert text instructions into Braille and audio codes. Obviously Matthew made comments and improvements in this regard, being compensated financially by LEGO for his hard work.

Although Matthew is happy to see his dream come true, it pains him that his friend Lilya is no longer here to see him, as she passed away from cancer a few years ago.

Even so, during her illness she kept working to come up with new instructions for the games and left some incomplete on her computer.

Matthew says that when he went to visit her at the hospital, he would build small things around her bed so that she would somehow forget her pain, even if for a short time.

Her death and the memory of everything she helped with and how she encouraged him, was what made Matthew contact the company because he was sure that his friend would be very proud of him. They hoped to make it, they didn't know if they would, but they always kept their faith.

Since then, the LEGO foundation works hard with Matthew, as it is a difficult challenge since the games focus completely on the visual aspects of construction, even the instructions did not have text but images so you could see how the figure was being put together. So understanding how they could convert those texts and images into Braille code or audios was tricky at first, but the fact that a blind person guided them made the job easier.

This is how, the first four Braille games were created: LEGO Classic, LEGO Citand, LEGO Friends and LEGO Movie 2.

The instructions are in English and free of charge on the online site and you should only choose whether you want to receive them in Braille or audio.

It should be noted that the briks have letters and numbers in Braille system in the reliefs where the pieces dovetail and in no way interfere with the assembly. They also have letters and numbers printed so that anyone without visual impairment can also play with them.

By the way, we must applaud the fact that these games are distributed, free of charge through the LEGO Foundation, to certain institutions for blind and visually impaired children to strengthen pedagogical learning in a playful way. In fact, many of these children have been testers of the new games that have been created.

As you read above, limitations only reside in our minds and Matthew Shifrin is proof that dreams can become a reality by believing in yourself and through perseverance.

The world is constantly changing and unfortunately every year there are more children with visual impairment who also have the right to have fun like any other children and people like Matthew alongside large companies like LEGO make this possible and bring us closer to true inclusion.

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