Children playing with Lego bricks
Children playing with Lego bricks featuring the shapes of Braille dots and the corresponding letter, number or punctuation symbol. Image Credit: NYT

New York: When Carlton Cook Walker’s young daughter developed health problems that led to near-total blindness, she knew she wanted her to learn Braille. But the family’s school, in rural central Pennsylvania, was resistant. A teacher pointed out that the girl, then in preschool, could still read print — as long as it was in 72-point type and held inches from her face.

“I said, ‘What about when she is in high school? How will she read Dickens like this?’” recalled Cook Walker, whose daughter, Anna, is now 18. “The teacher’s response was chilling: ‘Oh, she’ll just use audio.’”

So Cook Walker took matters into her own hands. In addition to successfully advocating Braille in her daughter’s school, she bought used children’s books, embossed Braille dots alongside the text and rebound them, teaching Anna to read through the stories of ‘The Berenstain Bears’ and ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’.

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 and look it up if I’m in a meeting with a senator or member of Congress.

- Paul Parravano | Employee at MIT, blind from retinal cancer as a toddler

Now, a new effort is under way to ease challenges like these and help blind and visually impaired children more naturally learn to read Braille, a system based on different configurations of six small, raised dots that blind people read with their fingertips. And it is coming in the form of a favourite childhood toy: Lego bricks.

This week, the Lego Foundation, which is funded by the Lego Group, the Danish toy company that makes the blocks, announced a new project that will repurpose the usual knobs atop the bricks as Braille dots. And because the blocks will also be stamped with the corresponding written letter, number or punctuation symbol, they can be played with by blind and sighted children alike. 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.

‘It’s intuitive’

“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. It is really a learning-through-play approach.”

Advocates say the product could transform reading for blind and visually impaired children, making the experience of learning Braille more inclusive and helping to combat what has been called a “Braille literacy crisis”. Though the research is limited, some estimates suggest that just 10 per cent of blind children in the United States learn to read Braille, even though Braille literacy is associated with better job outcomes for adults. In 2017, less than half of American adults with visual impairments were employed, according to a disability report by Cornell University.

190429 Lego
A child playing with Lego bricks featuring the shapes of Braille dots and the corresponding letter, number or punctuation symbol. Image Credit: NYT

Braille, once widely taught in schools for the blind, has fallen by the wayside since the 1970s, when the law began requiring state schools to offer equal education to children with disabilities. Blind students were able to join their sighted peers in the classroom, but traditional schools, biased towards sight and facing a lack of specialised teachers, often pushed 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.

Self taught

“Audio can give you information, but it can’t give you literacy,” said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, which offers summer programmes to teach Braille through hands-on activities.

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 and look it up if I’m in a meeting with a senator or member of Congress,” Parravano said.

He even uses Braille to get dressed for work; a labelling system helps him match clothes he cannot see. For example, if “a suit is No. 50,” he said, “my file system says that will go with tie No. 46 and shirt No. 32.”

But many children don’t learn Braille, not only because teachers and parents often lack the technical skills to teach it, but also because the experience can be isolating for young children, who must rely on separate books and machines from those used by their classmates.

Parravano learnt Braille on his own in the 1950s. 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 organisation 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 in a statement.

Mainstream appeal

There have been other attempts to make learning Braille more appealing, including alphabet blocks and UNO 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.