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New Legos Are Designed to Help Visually Impaired Children Learn Braille

The goal of the new toy is to increase literacy among the blind has fallen dramatically in the last 50 years

(The Lego Foundation)
smithsonian.com

Yesterday, Lego unveiled a prototype of new “Braille bricks” at the Sustainable Brands Conference in Paris and plans to officially release the product in 2020, reports Emily Dixon at CNN.

Legos have six raised dots made out of plastic. Likewise, the Braille alphabet is made of different configurations of up to six raised dots in a 3-by-2 formation punched into paper. The two are an obvious educational match made in heaven that didn’t exist—until now.

According to a press release, the idea for the bricks was first raised by the Danish Association of the Blind in 2011 and the Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in Brazil, which created its own version of Braille Bricks in 2017. Working with associations for the blind in the U.K., Denmark, Norway and Brazil, Lego refined and began testing the concept earlier this year.

The 250-brick set includes all Braille letters and numerals, along with mathematical symbols and punctuation marks. Each brick has the corresponding printed letter or character stamped on it so sighted teachers or students can follow along. The bricks are compatible with non-Braille Legos as well.

Currently, Lego has developed sets covering Danish, English, Norwegian and Portuguese, but will also have French, German and Spanish versions ready to go by the 2020 launch date. The Lego Foundation will give the sets to organizations serving the blind and visually impaired who will pass them along to interested clients.

Andrew Liszewski at Gizmodo reports that the bricks offer an advantage over the current methods of teaching Braille, which involve the use of expensive Braille writers or a slate and stylus. Any mistakes punched into the paper can’t easily be fixed. The Legos allow students of Braille to quickly and easily move the letters around and fix misspellings or math errors.

Learning Braille is something of a dying art. In 1960, about 50 percent of blind children in the United States learned to read Braille. With the advent of audiobooks and other media, that figure has dropped. According to the American Printing House for the Blind which conducts an annual survey on Braille literacy, only 8.4 percent of blind or visually impaired children between that age of 4 and 21 read Braille, and according to a report by the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), as of 2009 fewer than 10 percent were being taught the reading and writing system.

While many blind people get along fine without learning Braille, there are many benefits for children who master the system. “With thousands of audiobooks and computer programs now available, fewer kids are learning to read Braille,” Philippe Chazal, Treasurer of the European Blind Union, says in the release. “This is particularly critical when we know that Braille users often are more independent, have a higher level of education and better employment opportunities. We strongly believe Lego Braille Bricks can help boost the level of interest in learning Braille, so we’re thrilled that the Lego Foundation is making it possible to further this concept and bring it to children around the world.”

Learning Braille could help improve the lives of many visually impaired people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed in the U.S., the NFB reports. About 40 to 50 percent of blind students drop out of high school. The hope is that the Braille bricks will get children interested in learning Braille and inspire more teachers to learn how to teach the system and hopefully improve their educational attainment and employment prospects.

“Thanks to this innovation, children with vision impairment will be able to learn Braille and interact with their friends and classmates in a fun way, using play to encourage creativity while learning to read and write,” David Clarke, director of services at the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom, which is helping to develop the bricks, says in a statement. “I use Braille every day both at work and at home, so I’m excited to see how together, RNIB and LEGO can inspire and support the next generation.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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