Matthew Shifrin is a self-confessed LEGO addict.
“LEGO is wonderful for broadening your understanding of the visual world,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It allows you to touch the untouchable.”
But the difference between Shifrin and other LEGO enthusiasts is that he’s blind. Due to a premature birth, his retinas detached a few months into his life.
Even without sight, Shifrin quickly became obsessed with the blocks. But without instructions to guide him, he’d get lost. “I’d put wheels on an elephant and was like, ‘Hey look, it’s my Trojan elephant,’ but that didn’t really mean much,” he says.
At one point in elementary school, his friends were raving about a brand new set they had built: the Hogwarts castle from Harry Potter. Shifrin excitedly asked them how they built it. “There was this long pause and they were like, ‘We don’t know, we looked at the instructions and we built it,’” recalls Shifrin.
So, for his 13th birthday, his family friend Lilya Finkel arrived with the perfect surprise: an 800-piece LEGO set and a big binder — filled with Braille building instructions that she’d completed by hand. That was the first time Shifrin was able to build a LEGO set independently.
“The playing field was level. I could do what my sighted friends were able to do for years,” he says. “When I built my first set, I just remember singing about how great it was that I was like a real boy. I was building with LEGO. I never thought it would happen.”
From there, Shifrin and Lilya joined forces to create LEGO for the Blind, a website that provides downloadable instructions for a selection of LEGO sets. Almost immediately, they got bombarded with requests from blind kids and adults and people who love them.
Shifrin, unfortunately, wasn’t able to bask in his success for long, as Lilya soon died of cancer. Losing her raised the stakes even higher. “I could not let this project rest. I couldn’t let it die with her,” he says.
Eventually, he got in touch with LEGO, which was so inspired by his work that the company launched its own plan to be more inclusive: audio and Braille building instructions for four different sets. And based on the feedback, the company may wind up providing such instructions for every set they sell in the future.
Now, with that success under his belt, Shifrin has recently started using the blocks for a new hobby: rock climbing, by creating a system that uses LEGOs as a tactile representation of a rock wall, with which a sighted partner first constructs the route using a specific key.
“Flat, smooth, one-by-one wedges are going to be footholds. One-by-one cylinders are going to be pinches. Two-by-ones are going to be jugs,” Shifrin says, using rock-climbing jargon to refer to various types of holds.
After the route is mapped, he feels it out, peppering his partner with questions. Explaining the benefit to this system, he says, “You’re able to strategize. You’re able to really think about your body and its limits and really plan ahead.”
Similar to how he built his first LEGO set independently, Shifrin is again doing something that shouldn’t necessarily be possible for blind people. And yet, not long after he begins his climb, he now finds himself 40 feet above the ground and clinging to the top of the wall.
“I have so many friends who’ve lost their vision later in life and have really struggled, because they knew that other world,” he says. “And I don’t, but LEGO really helps me get some semblance of what life in a more sighted world would be like.”
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