LEGO Braille Bricks
This spot, which debuted on Twitter, shows a montage of children playing with LEGO Braille Bricks. Text appears throughout, reading:
‘These are LEGO Braille Bricks. The LEGO Foundation is piloting this product to help blind and visually impaired children learn to read Braille in a fun new way. The bricks represent Braille letters and numbers. And can be used by sighted and visually impaired children together. Each set will have around 250 bricks in 5 colors. As well as inspiration for teaching and interactive games. They are also being tested in several different languages. The colorful bricks will augment DIY teaching methods. Helping kids have fun while they learn. The final products are set to launch in 2020. They will be provided for free to selected institutions around the world.’
Unfortunately there are two problems with this ad. First, by relying on text without including visual descriptions, LEGO made their announcement inaccessible to the very people these bricks are intended for. Second, this product already exists.
According to Meryl Alper, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, and author of Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability and Inequality (2017) and Digital Youth with Disabilities (2014), both published by MIT Press:
Toys can provide kids with visual impairments opportunities for experimenting, reconfiguring, and playing with the building blocks of communication and literacy in non-visual ways. Most toys that promote Braille literacy for children with visual impairments aren’t “out of the box” ready; they require tinkering and workarounds to encourage crucial finger readiness and hand strength skills.
Tack-Tiles, a Braille-based toy developed in the early 1980s by a father named Kevin Murphy trying to teach his son Braille, is one such example. Collaborating with his son, Murphy transformed traditional LEGO blocks into tactile Braille cells. He writes on the Tack-Tiles website, “I mutilated the toys of Christmas 1980 […] The cells became words and sentences on the surfaces of toy boards meant to serve as front lawns.”
However, if you watched or read any press recently about the new LEGO Braille Bricks, you’d have no idea that Tack-Tiles ever existed. I am sure that those at the LEGO Foundation have nothing but good intent, but as a historian and ethnographer of how disabled folks have imagined and innovated their way out of problems through technology, this rollout is a missed opportunity to highlight the long legacy of their efforts. (Seriously, Tack-Tiles have existed since before I was born.)
Disabled people shouldn’t have to choose between being depicted as either the recipients or creators of cool technology, when history clearly shows that they have always been both.
(Note: This post is adapted from an article that I published in 2012 in the journal Digital Culture & Education, entitled “Promoting emerging new media literacies among young children with blindness and visual impairments.”)
LEGO could have partnered with Tack-Tiles, which currently retail for around $700, to make an affordable and commercially viable product. But instead, LEGO decided that Braille Bricks will be provided for free to selected institutions around the world. That LEGO Braille Bricks will be given charitably through their foundation, demonstrates how disabled people, as consumers, are consistently devalued so brands can achieve higher status. If you think about it, LEGO isn’t informing consumers about a new product that can be purchased. The ad can’t even be experienced by the very people these bricks are intended for. LEGO was virtue signaling.
In the spot, LEGO claims ‘The colorful bricks will augment DIY teaching methods’. But, disabled people are the original lifehackers. Our hacks are our pride. We fear LEGO doesn’t realize they are disparaging the creative ingenuity of a community by assuming we require intervention rather than solidarity and partnership.
Braille Bricks are a good idea. Unfortunately they’re not LEGO’s idea. And so we ask LEGO. What if you told the story of disability ingenuity? What if you brought these products to market, not as a charitable action, but in partnership with Tack-Tiles?