Earlier this year, LEGO announced that it was piloting its very own braille bricks, designed to encourage inclusive play and improve the learning experience for visually impaired children. Leonard Cheshire is proud to have been involved in this project with our Director of Assistive Technology, Steve Tyler, playing an important role in the creative process. In this episode we chat to Steve as well as Stine Storm, New Ventures Manager at the LEGO Foundation, who led the project.
Read more about the pilot here: https://www.leonardcheshire.org/about-us/press-and-media/press-releases/lego-foundation-are-pilot-braille-bricks
Watch a video about the bricks, featuring Steve Tyler, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW6xeiG8kIM
If you’d like to speak to us and tell us your story, email us at email@example.com
Steve Tyler: The idea of inclusion really, what Lego have done, is a sort of living, breathing embodiment of that. This is where children can sit together and play and be part of the whole thing without any barriers at all between each other.
Stine Storm: So we are focused on learning through play that’s our basic message/principle everything related to what we do is learning through play. This Lego braille bricks project just is a fantastic example of learning through play. I mean blind children learn braille in a playful way which I think that’s what’s so new and innovative about this project.
Cathy: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire.
Erin: And I’m Erin O’Reilly and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.
Erin: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, on today’s episode we’re going to be talking about Lego. Which some of you might be thinking, how does that relate to disability? We all play with it, well [laughs] well maybe not anymore but some of my brothers still do, but as kids I’m sure it was a really big part of most people’s lives and now it’s being used for educational purposes for children who are blind.
Cathy: Yeah it was really interesting chatting to Steve Tyler, our Director of Assistive Technology and Stine Storm who ran the Lego project and developed the product, you’ll see from our chats to them. It’s interesting how parents can play with their kids through Lego and Braille. It’s just a really special thing, also for non-disabled kids to learn or people with non-visual impairments because it’s interesting and a way that everyone can kind of connect together and learn through play.
Erin: Definitely and Steve, is just such a knowledgeable guy and he’s worked on so many projects in terms of assistive technology. He’s worked with Google, he’s worked with Mircosoft, he’s helped to develop phones to work for people with visual impairments and to now know he’s working on something that’s obviously quite forward-thinking and different and just very exciting, it’s just good to have him on-board and working with us and learning from those experiences as well. I think just having this is going shape children’s lives in a different way.
Cathy: It’s in a couple of countries at the moment and it’s rolling out slowly but it’s going to go wider, it’s part of the Lego philanthropic foundation in a stream of activity. So who knows, Christmas is coming, it could be a present for schools and things like that.
Erin: Great, shall we launch into the first interview?
Erin: So first up we’ve got Cathy’s interview with Steve Tyler, our Director of Assistive Technology.
Cathy: Could you explain to us what the Lego braille bricks kind of are and how they’re going to benefit children?
Steve Tyler: Hi everyone, thanks Cath! Yes, the idea has been around for a couple of years with discussions going on between a set of people, including myself, and Lego when they originally expressed interest. And the idea is that as a lot of you will know, Lego’s slogan is learning through play and the very obvious thing if you look at a Lego brick it’s got dots arranged in grid patterns either in 2’s or 4’s or 6’s or 8’s. And especially the brick that has 6 dots on it, that’s remarkably similar to a braille cell as we’re describing. So if you think about braille and the way it’s made up, it’s made up of combinations of up to six dots arranged in, going down the left hand side in three dots and then going down the right hand side in three dots so six in all in that grid formation. Then you take away some or amend the pattern to create different letters and numbers and anything else that’s reflective of print. So it’s always been in our minds that braille is remarkably similar to Lego and vice versa. And when this discussion began to take shape, the Lego foundation which is the charitable arm of Lego separate to the Lego corporation, they began to take a real interest in the whole idea. As time went on we began to define the project a bit more closely and obviously once of the amazing possibilities around the project is that Lego being Lego and who it is and the fact that it has a real following in children and of course parents, good links into schools etc, everybody knows Lego...if that could be brought together with the concept of inclusion and learning braille that could be phenomenal. And the project eventually morphed into a testing of prototypes and the prototypes were essentially Lego bricks in the form of braille and having the different braille combinations along with the print. The idea being that as a blind or partially sighted child you could learn braille, you could communicate with a sighted child though because it has print on the bricks and of course parents and so on. And the key part of it was creating systems or support methodologies that would encourage the growth of learning and teaching and the interaction between sighted and blind children. So what begun to emerge as we began to test the idea was the idea of very different kind of concepts like 3D scrabble for example, so you could have hidden letters and patterns not just now in 2D in the traditional way but blocks upon blocks and everybody was equal in doing it. And as we moved through the testing phase of the project it became very clear that this was a massively popular idea, teachers, children alike all loved the concept, certainly it worked on an inclusive agenda. And then lots of other things had begun to pop out that we hadn’t quite catered for, like using Lego bricks to leave messages for parents and vice versa. So a sighted parent who didn’t know braille could leave a message for a blind child or a braille reading child. So absolutely phenomenal and very quickly as we moved through the project the first phase of testing and prototyping it became clear that we didn’t really need to continue with the evaluation, it was an overwhelming support for it. Lego certainly were delighted by its potential. And so the announcement is all about Lego giving the green light to the next phase of the project, the next phase being much more formal and the development of the products along with literacy developmental.
Cathy: So Steve, what’s your, kind of, role been in into inputting into this project?
Steve Tyler: In my previous life I’ve been an avid braille user of course but also involved in stands round braille, I know my way around the braille reading market and I know lots of people attached to braille. In fact I worked on such things as braille standards that we now see on pharmaceutical packaging right across Europe. And the team in Denmark that I previously worked with on that standards process knew of me. They’d found it difficult to engage with the UK more generally and so approached Leonard Cheshire for some help. So I, in the name of Leonard Cheshire as an organisation, acted as a coordinator of the project, opened doors, located triallists, found ways of engaging organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People and other, local schools, inclusive and specialist. Then we needed some really specialist support. As it turns out I’m a trustee at New College Worcester and that’s a specialist school in the secretary sector and they have a great interest in more complex use of braille especially things like mathematics and scientific notation and so on, so they were very keen to be involved. Essentially, I acted as a coordinator and we at Leonard Cheshire of course support the entire proposition. The idea that an organisation like Lego is taking this seriously and genuinely is delivering what will be millions of Euros worth of investment is an astonishing thing. The whole process will take in the order of a year from now so we are probably talking about launch in May or June 2020.
Cathy: Looking back if thinking you know if you had had this as a child what kind of opportunities would it have brought to you?
Steve Tyler: Well it was really amazing actually. I sat in on the very early trials with children and I’ll never forget one of them, cause I imagined myself being that slightly precocious child who happened to say, “well they’ve done pretty well I suppose.” And I thought that, they’ve done pretty well. As an opening gambit I think I would have loved the opportunity to engage with it. In a mainstream setting in particular, one of the overwhelming things that children will say, a visually impaired child will say, is that they may well be included, and they may well have lots of support and they will have formed friendships and relationships with other children, but one thing that comes out all the time is people don’t really understand. I think what they mean by that often is they don’t really understand what it’s like for them to be in the environment that they’re in and for them to be a special cased all the time. Whichever way they think about it. You’re always a bit of a special case. They get taken out of lessons to learn braille or you have to be taken out of mainstream teaching sessions to learn about mobility and things like this. The idea of inclusion really, what Lego have done, is a sort of living, breathing embodiment of that. This is where children can sit together and play and be part of the whole thing without any barriers at all between each other.
Cathy: Wonderful, thank you so much Steve.
Steve Tyler: Thank you!
Cathy: So it must have been a really busy week for you for the Lego foundation. What’s the response to the Braille bricks been like for you?
Erin: And next, Cathy chats to Stine Storm. Stine was the lead when it came to developing the braille bricks.
Stine: Good well the response to the braille bricks project has been to the Lego braille bricks has just been overwhelming. We’ve simply had so many positive responses not just from the blind community but from people who are familiar with the Lego bricks in general and we think that’s wonderful. You know it’s a joint collaboration between the foundation and the Lego group and all the blind partners that have helped us develop the concept but also helped us test it in a few markets to date.
Cathy: Can you kind of explain to our listeners what the Lego foundation does as an organisation?
Stine: The Lego foundation is a philanthropic organisation we are 23% of the Lego group which means we have the funds to invest in different projects to benefit children around the world. So we are focused on learning through play that’s our basic message/principle everything related to what we do is learning through play. This Lego braille bricks project just is a fantastic example of learning through play. I mean blind children learn braille in a playful way which I think that’s what’s so new and innovative about this project.
Cathy: Brilliant and can you talk about the Leonard Cheshire involvement in the project and Steve’s link to the product?
Stine: So we’ve been approached by different blind communities and organisations over the years and the idea has been there, but we just haven’t been able to engage with it until now. We were approached in 2017 by a Brazilian foundation called the Dorina Nowill Foundation who had actually made a prototype themselves so they showed us this and asked if we could help them put it into production and hopefully go global. So of course we also contacted the Danish Association for the Blind who is our national organisation who also came with this idea to us actually back in 2011 now they have a strong collaboration with Leonard Cheshire and Steve himself which is why he was brought into the project early on and to put together a project team and blind communities and markets from different organisations. So initially we started and we’re now going on to testing in informal.
Cathy: What’s the potential of the braille bricks going forward, I understand it’s going to be rolled out in a number of countries, what’s the next stage really?
Stine: Right, okay – well the complexity of this project is quite huge as you are aware, each braille alphabet is different depending on the unique characters in any given language so with English probably being the most simple of those from A to Z, if we talk about French, they have about 12 to 13 extra characters just in the alphabet, so of course with printing the letters on the bricks it has also added the complexity that we’re going to have to make local versions in each language as well as each market. So that’s why we’re only testing in a few markets and also rolling out in those markets that we’ve tested in initially and then hopefully over time more and more markets. I just have to stress its not the toolkit in itself with the bricks, what is equally important is the teaching concept that goes with it to ensure the blind and visually impaired children actually get the most the optimal of out the Braille bricks. You need to be taught in the right way to ensure it is truly learning through play.
Cathy: Yeah, interesting, and do you think this has the potential to be even a mainstream product because Braille lends itself well to Lego.
Stine: Yes, it’s a very good question I mean right now we’re still in the pilot phase and we’re investigating to cater to supply and demand and yes we have been asked why is this not readily available for anyone online or in shops but we strongly believe that this teaching concept is so important and implemented in the right way which is why we’re collaborating with Leonard Cheshire and other similar local blind organisations to ensure that it’s done in the right way. So we’re more focused on quality over quantity so yeah.
Cathy: So I saw from looking at your sustainability agreement for 2030 to make all of your products out of sustainable materials, is that why you debuted the bricks at the conference in Paris? Will the Lego Braille bricks be made out of sustainable materials?
Stine: Well the reason we chose to announce the braille Lego bricks at the sustainability conference in Paris was because one of the themes was inclusiveness and we think this is a great example of showing inclusiveness of how children with special educational needs or disabilities can be taught alongside in this case sighted children. For us this is sustainable in itself, but In terms of the long term perspective all Lego bricks will be made from sustainable materials, likewise will the production of braille Lego bricks in future but right now in order to bring them to market they are produced in the same high quality standard as the Lego bricks that we have in any other Lego set.
Cathy: brilliant, thank you so much.
Erin: So I think this episode has shown us that assistive technology isn’t just technology and devices of what you might think of in terms of being online and on the computer and on your phone. It’s like practical tools you can use in everyday life that are just going to make things easier and provide people with more opportunities than maybe they would have had in the first place and it kind of just puts everyone on a more level playing field doesn’t it.
Cathy: I think that’s what’s the beauty of it, it that it’s quite simple and often the simplest solutions are often the best one.
Erin: yeah so if the braille bricks sound interesting to you definitely write into us and let us know what your thoughts are on it, if there are other products you know about that you think are game changing just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org/
Cathy: And remember to like, share and subscribe we really want to hear your feedback and we want to find new stories and topics so if you’ve got any ideas send us an email or you can get in touch with us via social media @Leonardcheshire
I’m Cathy Lynch
Erin: And I’m Erin O’Reilly
Both: And this has been, The Disability Download.