This week, Lego announced plans to unveil customized bricks designed to help children who are blind or visually impaired learn to read Braille.
At a time when Braille literacy is declining among Americans, advocates for the visually impaired say the new product introduces a fun, interactive way to engage with the tactile system.
"Who doesn't want an activity that they can do with their friends that's also educational?" said Kate Katulak, the assistant director of college success at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, in an interview with NPR.
The idea was first pitched to Lego by two nonprofits that advocate for the inclusion of the visually impaired — the Danish Association of the Blind in 2011, and then the Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in 2017.
Since then, the toy company has collaborated with both organizations, as well as a handful of other associations for the blind, on developing prototypes.
Each Braille block will feature studs with the same six-dot configuration of individual letters and numbers from the Braille alphabet. But they'll remain compatible with classic Lego bricks.
The new blocks are being introduced at a time when many Braille educators are lamenting a decline in Braille instruction.
"More and more students who are blind or visually impaired are being mainstreamed in public schools," Katulak said. "Because emphasis is placed on the core curriculum ... there is little time left in the minds of some to teach Braille."
In the United States, less than 10% of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind are Braille readers, according to one study by the National Federation of the Blind. The same study found that "a mere 10% of blind children are learning it."
By comparison, the National Federation of the Blind notes that in the 1950s, as many as half of all blind children learned Braille, when it was part of the curriculum in many schools for the blind.
The rise of audio technology is one factor behind the drop. At an age when students are trying to fit in among their peers, headphones that can mask a disability give kids an incentive to dismiss the importance of learning Braille, Katulak said.
But even in the digital age, audio books, for example, can't replace Braille's relevancy, especially among emerging readers, according to Katulak.
"Audio books are wonderful, but when you think about listening to an audio book, there's really important information that you're missing," she said. "You're not hearing how words are spelled, grammar, punctuation, where does a paragraph begin and end."
Katulak, a certified teacher of students with visual impairments, said her students often wonder why they need to read Braille when their non-visually impaired classmates don't.
Learning Braille is just as beneficial to the visually impaired as learning to read for students who aren't visually impaired, she said. "If they only learn to read by listening, it's going to impact their writing and their own reading abilities."
This is something parents understand once they see the data linking Braille literacy to long-term success, Katulak said. "We give them evidence that suggests students, when learning Braille, they're more likely to gain employment and have greater academic gains, as well, later in life."
On Lego's new Braille Bricks, which are set to hit commercial stores in 2020, Braille is also translated into numbers and letters allowing parents and educators to follow along.
NPR's Mia Venkat produced this story for broadcast. Melissa Gray edited.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, Legos, who doesn't love them? Giant bricks, tiny bricks, you can make them into anything you want, from "Star Wars" characters to cathedrals. Last week, Lego announced its latest project - Braille bricks. It's a kit of interlocking bricks, each with a braille letter, number or math symbol on the top, fully compatible with existing Lego pieces. The project is intended to help make it more fun to learn braille at a time when braille literacy is steadily declining.
Joining us to talk about why that is and why it matters is Kate Katulak. She's the assistant director of college success at Perkins School for the Blind, and she's with us from WBUR in Boston. Kate, thanks so much for joining us.
KATE KATULAK: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: First, could you set the table for us? I mean, how do we know that fewer children are learning braille?
KATULAK: We know there are fewer children learning braille because of research that's been done showing that about 12% of students who are blind are getting braille instruction or no braille.
MARTIN: And why might that be?
KATULAK: Well, one possible reason is because more and more students who are blind or visually impaired are being mainstreamed in public schools. And because an emphasis often gets placed on the core curriculum - math, science and reading, history - there is little time left to teach braille.
MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit about the impact of technology on kids learning braille if you would. I mean, I'm thinking about, you know, audio books, voice recognition software. Do you think that that's a factor as well?
KATULAK: I do think audio books and other technology is a factor. Audio books are wonderful. But when you think about listening to an audio book, there's really important and specific information that you're missing. You're not hearing how words are spelled, grammar, punctuation, where does a paragraph begin and end. And braille is a wonderful opportunity to give that information to readers.
MARTIN: Could there also be a social motivation? I'm thinking now, like, if you get on the subway or the metro or the T, people are going to be plugged into their devices. And I'm just wondering if maybe people are visually impaired, they might just want to do what everybody else is doing.
KATULAK: I completely agree with you. If I'm on the train and someone looks over and I have a braille book out, they immediately recognize that's someone who is blind, and they read in a different way from me. But if I have an iPad out, and I'm reading by listening with an earpiece in my ear, no one really gives me a second glance.
MARTIN: Do your students tell you that?
KATULAK: They do. The students often say things like, but I just want to fit in. I want to look like everyone else. And the people next to me aren't reading braille, so why should I?
MARTIN: So answer the question. Why should they? I mean, if it's easier to get along without having to rely on braille, tell me why you think it's still important. I'm just wondering if you're having a hard time making the case to parents as well as the students.
KATULAK: It's really not a hard sell to parents because we show them the data. We give them evidence that suggests students, when learning braille, they're more likely to get employment and have greater academic gains as while later in life.
MARTIN: How did you learn braille, by the way? Do you mind if I ask?
KATULAK: That's fine. I became blind when I was about 15-years-old, when I was in high school. So I began learning braille when I became blind. Although I'm not a fast braille reader, I know the code, and so I use it in very functional ways. For instance, at home, my makeup is labeled in braille, so I can identify the differences in colors. There are braille tags that I can put on my clothing. In my office, many of my files are labeled in braille. And it helps me with organization and other things.
MARTIN: That's Kate Katulak, certified teacher of students with visual impairments at Perkins School for the Blind. Kate, thanks so much for talking to us.
KATULAK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.