Building connections with LEGO Braille bricks

Braille is a vital communication tool for people with impaired vision. Now students can learn it in a fun way alongside their sighted peers, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

Vision Australia, a not-for-profit provider of services for people with blindness or low vision, has partnered with the LEGO® Foundation to help students develop their Braille skills and offer inclusive learning with their sighted classmates.

“Most little kids start out playing with blocks with letters on them, but a child who is blind or has low vision can’t see those – so these LEGO Braille bricks allow them access to early literacy learning,” says Melissa Fanshawe, senior lecturer at University of Southern Queensland. Fanshawe is a LEGO Braille education ambassador and mum to Ollie, 14, who has low vision.

The raised bumps on each LEGO Braille brick have been modified to correspond to a letter or character of the Braille alphabet.

Each brick also has a printed letter or character to allow children who are blind or have low vision to learn and play alongside sighted classmates, family members and teachers.

“This new toy normalises Braille and allows sighted kids and those who are blind or have low vision to play together and it allows kids with vision impairment to learn while they play, and that is something that sighted kids take for granted,” Fanshawe added.

Revolutionary educational tool

The CEO of Vision Australia, Ron Hooton, said the organisation was proud to partner with LEGO and become the only distributor of the Braille bricks in Australia.

“Inclusive education is something Vision Australia advocates for and the LEGO Foundation has provided us with a great example of how that can be achieved,” Hooton said.

“Braille is vital in supporting children who are blind or have low vision to develop literacy skills, and LEGO Braille bricks are a great way to expose children to Braille at an early age.

“Not only will LEGO Braille bricks be a revolutionary educational tool for them, it’s also a great way for families and other children to learn more about Braille and its importance.”

It’s a great way for families and other children to learn more about Braille and its importance.

Seeing differently

Fanshawe has worked with children who are blind or have low vision for the past 20 years and is trained as a teacher of the vision impaired.

Her son, Ollie, was born with low vision and while he knows how important Braille can be, like any child learning to read and write, he can find it a bit boring and challenging.

“Why would you want to learn Braille on paper when you can learn it with LEGO?” Fanshawe said.

She points out that children who are sighted start developing pre-literacy skills by looking at letters and words all around them – from signs and menus to toys and building blocks – but children who are blind or have low vision are denied that opportunity.

“If you don’t have sight and you are just listening to words via technology you can’t hear how things are spelled,” Fanshawe said.

“But it is important to be able to spell things properly because sighted people expect things in a well-written, well-punctuated format, so these are key things.

“Particularly homophones: things that sound the same but are spelled differently.” By this she means words such as new/knew and rain/reign/rein.

High rates of Braille literacy also tend to translate into better work outcomes for people who are blind or have low vision.

Creating the concept

The concept behind the Braille bricks is simple: play-based methodology that teaches Braille to children who are blind or vision impaired.

Each brick retains its iconic form, but the studs are arranged to correspond to numbers and letters of the Braille alphabet as well as a printed version of the symbol or letter.

By combining these features, a whole new world of playful learning opens up that is enjoyable and tactile.

According to the LEGO Foundation, fewer young people are learning Braille

due to the growing volume of audio books and computer programs on the market.

However, around the world, people with blindness or impaired vision still rely on Braille to work, study and enjoy their lives to the fullest.

The foundation hopes that this simple but highly practical tool will teach and encourage more young people to take up learning Braille.

The Danish Association of the Blind first proposed the bricks to the LEGO Foundation in 2011, followed by the Brazilian-based Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in 2017.

The concept underwent two rounds of extensive testing over two years in collaboration with Blind communities in Denmark, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, France and the United States.

How to come by the bricks

Vision Australia is the LEGO Foundation’s official partner for distribution of the Braille bricks in Australia.

They will be provided to schools or other education institutions that have one or more students who are blind or have low vision and are learning Braille.

They are not available for sale to the general public. Schools, other institutions and teachers will need to register with Vision Australia and complete a one-hour webinar training workshop developed under guidance from the LEGO Foundation.

After completing this they will be provided access to kits.

For more information, see the Vision Australia website