Climbing Accessible Heights with Matthew Shifrin

Matthew Shifrin is a musician, Inventor, Entrepreneur and Advocate.

His story of bringing accessible instructions to Lego is a great example of the power of individual advocacy. Hear about his other projects including virtual reality, comic book access, rock climbing and a new podcast.

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TR:

Greetings everyone, from at least 6 feet away!

First and foremost, I hope everyone is doing well, and you each are as comfortable as possible. Most importantly staying safe and keeping each other safe by following the recommended protocol.

for right now, I’m going to keep my Corona Virus thoughts and observations to simply wishing you all the best. And reminding you all to protect yourselves physically but also pay close attention to your mental health.

By the way, my name is Thomas Reid host and producer of this podcast where we bring you compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. Occasionally, I share my own experiences as a man adjusting to becoming Blind as an adult. All of this by the way has been brought to you since 2014 from the safe and sanitized studio located in my home. So really, ain’t nothing new here folks! We’ve been riding ahead of this curve for a minute!
Now, only one way to start this episode…

Audio: Water flowing from sink…

TR sings…

“Wash your hands, Wash your hands, Everybody wash your hands.
Wash your hands, Wash your hands, Everybody wash your hands.”

Audio: Reid My Mind Theme Music

MS:
I’m Matthew Shifrin and I’m a Blind Musician and Inventor.

TR:

You may be familiar with Matthew. He’s received a fair amount of press in regards to his work with Lego. Specifically, his work making Lego instructions accessible to Blind children.

It all began when he himself as a five or six year old child followed a very specific instruction given to him by his close family friend.

MS:

Lilya who later created the text based instructions, she and I were driving back from somewhere , she stops the car and yells “Get out.” Ok, I get out. She says pick up this crate. This crate is like half my body weight. And so we manage to muscle this crate into the trunk of her car and she’s like, “C’mon open it.” I open it and this crate is full to the brim with Lego bricks.
And that’s really how my journey with Lego started.

TR:

Matthew began building Lego sets with the help of his parents.

MS:
Because they could read the instructions and I couldn’t.

TR:

Lego instructions are visual. They’re diagrams detailing how to connect the various pieces completing the design.

MS:

We were mainly building bionicals. , which were these action figures that Lego made. They were very formulaic. If I built one of them, then I could build the rest of a certain type on my own. Those were the only types of sets I could build on my own.

TR:

Building the sets required the help of Matthew’s parents.

MS:

So they’d just say okay you need to find such and such piece. I’d go scrounging around the bottom of the box to try and find something and then they’d say okay well here’s where you put it and I’d put it there and we’d go piece by piece. It would just take 4 to 5 hours to build a $20 set that was 200, 300 pieces.

TR:

While appreciative of his parent’s dedication and time, Matthew recognized the difference between his Lego experience and that of his friends.

MS:

They were building sets all the time. They’d come into school and say hey I built a spaceship yesterday and I’d say oh that’s so great. How did you do it? Then there’d be silence and they’d be like well, I looked at the instructions and they told me what to do and I just followed them. I just remember thinking all this time I wish I could do that.

TR:

In case you’re thinking Lego is just a toy.

MS:

When we look at Lego instructions they really provide a lot of insight into how things are made. How things are built. How mechanisms work.

And when I built on my own I really had none of that vocabulary.

TR:

This was evident from the experience his sighted friends had with Lego.

MS

they could build trains that ran, crossbows that shot actual darts because they were familiar with the engineering concepts that made these devices work.

TR:

Working with his parents gave Matthew[emphasis on some] some insight…

MS:

But as the Blind builder I was just following directions. I had no idea where we were going. yes, I knew it was some sort of frame that we were building but I had no idea what it would end up looking like. As opposed to the parents who did. There wasn’t a lot of vocabulary gained even then because I couldn’t see the instructions on my own I couldn’t flip ahead. I couldn’t imagine structures in my head because I had no vocabulary

TR:

Remember Lilya, the family friend who had Matthew lug that first box of Lego bricks into the car? On his 13th birthday, she brought him the next step in his access.

MS:

She gives me this big cardboard box with a big fat binder. And mind you this binder is thick, we’re talking two copies of the yellow Pages thick. In this binder there are these instructions that she’s hand Brailed on a Perkins Braille typewriter. And in the box is this Middle Eastern Lego Palace. This palace was big, 830 – 840 pieces. these instructions she created completely on her own. She invented her own vocabulary to name every type of Lego piece that was in that set.

TR:

That was the vocabulary Matthew longed for.

MS:

Put a flat 6 by 1vertically on the table. Put a flat 2 by 1 on its rear most button over hanging to the right horizontally. Put a flat 4 by 1 vertically to the front.

I got to a point where I was able to read instructions and imagine what it would be like to build a certain model or a certain sub section. That’s just spatial awareness, spatial reasoning, these sighted skills that are developed over many years in sighted children. The fact that I was able to really visualize on my own was a very valuable skill and I would argue an under taught skill when it comes to Blind children.

TR:

Getting access to Lego instructions was just a part of Lilya’s goal.

MS:

Her goal was that I should have the same experiences as other sighted children. And so she brailed board games, she brailed books. She did all of tshe did all of this stuff, but Lego was just the one thing g that she could not figure out how to make accessible for many many years just because the instructions were pictures.

TR:

Once Matthew gained access.

MS:

I just wanted people to have this resource because I’d benefited so much from it. Not all Blind kids have people that could write instructions for them. Everyone deserves to be able to build and to learn from what they’ve build.

TR:

making this information available to other Blind children required some steps.

MS:

We had to create more instructions, build more develop some sort of language. Make sure that this was durable and then we had to get it out to Blind people. I think Lego themselves were always an end goal but Blind people had to come first because we had to be sure that Blind people could engage in this content as much as I could.

TR:

Realizing the instructions could be produced digitally, eventually led to the website.

MS:

LegoForTheBlind.com where all our instructions live. there’s 30, 40 sets there.

Our end goal was always getting it to a larger entity.

[TR in conversation with MS:]

Would you consider yourself an advocate?

MS

Sure. Advocacy is like a blob, you can shape it mold it. One might argue that lilya making those instructions was advocacy. After she made those instructions and we had that website, I’d always wanted to get it through to Lego but I really didn’t know how to go about it. To infiltrate such a massive company you need to know people.

TR:

His first attempt, contacting Lego customer service didn’t yield any results. But sometimes, all you need is to know someone, who knows someone…
MS:

I was interning at the MIT Media Lab. I had a friend who worked there adn there’s a group there called the Lifelong learning Kindergarten Group and they have a very long and fruitful collaboration with Lego themselves. So I went to this friend of mine and said hey I have this project and I told him about the project and he said yeh, I have a friend who just moved to Denmark two weeks ago and he’s working with Lego. I’ll send your story along to him. We’ll see where that gets you. This friend of his emailed back and he said oh yes this is a very interesting story I’ll send it to the head of the new projects division which is like Lego’s version of DARPA, all their secret mysterious projects that no one really knows about until they get released. Then when I got in touch with this guy Olaf Gyllenstenthat was really a pivotal moment

because this guy was in on it. He wanted this to happen as much as I did.

TR:

That’s known as an internal ally. Someone in the organization to help advance your cause.

MS:

Mind you this guy had no connection with Blind people. He had just never thought about Blind children as a possible segment of people who could enjoy Lego and their instructional aspect just as much as sighted children. Just because he never met Blind children. When he realized this impact that this could make on Blind children, he bulldozed his way forward through the ranks of the company. He talked to the head of Lego Niels B. Christiansen who runs the company now and Christiansen was very enthusiastic and when your project goes that high up , it’s going to go somewhere.

TR:

And it did. Lego decided to produce the instructions.

MS:

The Lego Foundation, they’re kind of their charitable we have cool projects arm. They were showing off these instructions and they wrote me an email and said we have a press conference we want you to present. Could you come and we also want to introduce you to all of the people that have been doing this. Could you spend six days in Denmark. (Laughing…) I was like well, I guess I can. It was a conference of Lego fans. They are very committed. They have blogs and websites, YouTube channels. We’re showing the kind of text based instructions and comparing them to the graphical ones and just kind of talking about the thrill of being able to build on your own. Just the response form these people was amazing. They and I are just united by a love of Lego. It was amazing to see how touched these people were by these instructions and by the spreading of this medium to people who previously could not engaged with this medium as your average sighted person could. That was just a really energizing moment.

[TR in conversation with MS:]

Are you still working with the company?

MS

Very much. I do quality assurance. Checking instructions and making them as understandable as possible. We’re hoping to have 25 to 30 accessible instructions out in the next couple of months for sets that are currently out.

TR:

Users will be able to purchase a Lego set from their favorite retailer and download the instructions from the Lego website, LegoAudioInstructions.com.

MS:

Hopefully they’re also going to redesign their packaging so that they can Braille the numbered bags. I don’t know how long that’s going to take but that’s just something they’ve been looking into and hopefully that would happen.

[TR in conversation with MS:]
Wow!

TR:

I really shouldn’t have such a reaction in 2020. Unfortunately, the response from Lego, isn’t the norm. Even companies who make they’re product accessible, packaging, well that’s another story.

MS:

When Lilya and I were making these instructions on our own we really wanted Blind children to have the complete experience of building the set. So we would describe the box art and the advertising from the back of the manual and the art and the little prints on the Lego people because we really wanted the Blind child to engage with the set as much as the sighted child could. And it’s wonderful to see that carry over to Lego’s instructions. They describe the little Lego people and they describe this and that . They really tend to energize the experience. They really guide you through the building process and they complement you once you finish something they’re like congratulations you finished the car. An adult might kind of get annoyed by that but for children this is what they need when they’re fist getting into Lego. It’s really important for them to feel really included in the process and engaged by the process not just I’m stacking pieces but hey I built a thing. Now I can revel in this thing and then can move on to the next part of the build the fact that Lego are really making their instructions so human, I’m very glad that they’re doing that.

[TR in conversation with MS:]

It’s funny because you said adults can get annoyed… I don’t know, I guess because I’m coming from a particular perspective…

TR:

I wasn’t a Blind child. I don’t even recall having any Lego sets growing up.

When I became Blind as an adult, I had small sighted children, but man, I wish I had a Lego set with accessible instructions to actively engage in with my kids.

I did have a set of Braille Uno cards. That was one of the ways I practiced Braille. Unfortunately my daughter only three years old then would beat me constantly and it just wasn’t any fun! And for the record, I didn’t let her win. I’m not that type of parent. She was just a little card shark. I’m still not over that!

Matthew recently found a cool way to pair Lego bricks with a new interest.

MS:

A few months ago I started climbing with a team of disabled rock climbers. I saw that the Blind rock climbers were really struggling because there’s a person at the bottom of the climbing wall who yells directions at you. And that’s great because then you can get up to the top, but you have no opportunity to think ahead and really plan for yourself. As opposed to the sighted climber who’s able to come up to the wall look at it and really strategize as to where they put their various appendages. I thought well wouldn’t it be cool to make a Lego based mapping system for rock climbers.

TR:

Next time he went to the rock climbing gym, HE brought his Lego bricks and figured out a method for mapping the wall.

MS:

Different types of pieces are used for different types of holes. Two by ones are jugs which are large rounded holes and then one by ones are crimps which are smaller holes. Three by ones are legends and one by one flat round pieces are foot holes.

TR:

The map is laid out by working with that sighted person who yells directions.

MS:

They can do it in a matter of minutes. A minute or less. And so this could easily be used in climbing competitions.

[TR in conversation with MS:]
And then the person right before they’re climbing could actually kind of go through it . Now do you retain that information?

MS:

I try to retain but sometimes when someone yells out it’s also useful because you’re able to correct yourself on the fly and you’re able to kind of rethink your process if you’ve taken a slightly different path up than you initially estimated the yelling person is really valuable because they’re able to make you reassess your situation in a very sensible way.

[TR in conversation with MS:]

You’re younger than me man, I don’t retain as much anymore. Laughs…

Has this an impact on your view of advocacy? Do you have intentions on kind of moving forward and doing more of this type of thing?

MS

I have a comic book accessibility project where I’m building a virtual reality headset for Blind people with engineers at MIT. This headset makes you feel different motions by affecting your sense of balance and messing with it.

TR:

It sounds like the lessons learned with Lego are being applied to his latest project.

MS:

I thought about the way comics were made. I found that comic books run on scripts. These scripts are like movie scripts that they’re incredibly detailed and they tell the artist exactly what to draw and how to draw it. I thought this is our way in. What I need to do now is to network with authors and artists and comic book companies and really energize them. I’ve been in talks with Marvel Comics and combining this helmet that we’re working on with their comic books really provide a new dimension to their work via blind or sighted

The total strangers who owe you nothing but who are still incredibly enthusiastic. I go to comic book conventions every year to network with authors and kind of tell them about it engaging aspects of advocacy the project and Blind people and how comics help Blind people learn about the world around them.

These people are really energized by the fact that comics are being interpreted in a new way. I’m a random Blind guy with ideas. When I come up to their table and say I’d like to kind of look into how you write. Are any of your scripts available on your website? Could I figure out how to do this and make this accessible? They don’t owe me anything. They could say, sorry I only sign books goodbye. But no, they’re thrilled that comic books are going beyond the newsstand, beyond the bookshelf even beyond the television screen into new medium. The more success you have with advocacy the more energized you are to go out there and advocate more and make more things accessible to Blind people or disabled people or whoever.

TR:

Matthews latest project is looking at a different sort of access.

MS:

We have practically no Blind people in the mainstream podcasting space. And it’s interesting because podcasting seems to be such a Blind friendly medium, but when you look at places like I don’t know MPR, major broadcasters no one there is Blind. I started a podcast called Blind Guy Travels. First couple of episodes are hopefully going to come out in a month or two. It takes these mundane experiences like going to the movies or gestures or making funny faces from the standpoint of a Blind person. I’m doing it with Radiotopia who are kind of the podcast branch of NPR.

TR:

To me this story of making accessible Lego instructions is not only about the power of individual advocacy, the importance of stimulating a child’s imagination but also one of friendship and commitment.
MS:

When Lilya died she left a couple of instructions for sets that we hadn’t built yet. And it’s interesting now finishing those sets and building them and just kind of keeping the energy alive. Lego will do their own thing but hopefully Lego for the Blind will do its own thing just because Lego are going to start adapting from a certain year. Everything before then will be inaccessible. I have a list of sets that people want made accessible. The goal will be to find instruction writers. I can teach them easily how to do this and the goal will be to find instruction writes and to teach them to craft instructions and to keep the Lego For the Blind website growing and going beyond what Lilya and I have done.

TR:

How many times have we heard; a picture is worth a thousand words.

I don’t think we need a thousand words to describe the benefit of making the images that are the Lego instructions accessible.

MS:

I just remember building that set and feeling completely (exhale…) very free!
TR:

If you’re interested in helping this effort or just want to know more about any of the projects mentioned or more about Matthew including his music, contact him.

MS:

On Lego For the Blind there’s a contact uplink at the bottom and they could find me there. On Twitter @MatShhifrin Mat with one t. And on YouTube I’m Shifrin2002.

TR:

If you liked what you heard hear, all I ask is that you share the podcast. It’s safe, you don’t have to be within six feet of anyone to do so. Just send a text, email, a tweet a post on FB. Let them know you’re listening to something that you find enjoyable and informative.
It’s available wherever you get podcasts. And transcripts and more can be found at ReidMyMind.com. Just make sure you let them know, it’s R to the E I D (Audio: “D, and that’s me in the place to be” Slick Rick)

TR:
Like my last name!

Audio: Reid My Mind Outro

Peace!

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