This week, Lego announced plans to uncover custom bricks designed to help blind or visually impaired children learn to read blind spots.
At a time when Braille literacy falls among Americans, visually impaired lawyers say the new product introduces a fun, interactive way to engage in the tactile system.
"Who doesn't want an activity they can do with their friends who are also educational?" said Kate Katulak, assistant director of college success at Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, in an interview with NPR.
The idea was first added to Lego by two nonprofit organizations as spokesman for inclusion of the visually impaired – the Danish Blind Association in 2011, and then Dorina Nowill Foundation for Blind in 2017.
Since then, the toy has collaborated with both organizations, as well as a handful of others associations for the blind, developing prototypes.
Each Braille block will contain studs with the same six-point configuration of individual letters and numbers from the Braille alphabet. But they remain compatible with classic Lego bricks.
The new blocks are being introduced at a time when many braille educators apologize for a decline in Braille instructions.
"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 plan … there is little time left in mind for someone to teach Braille."
In the United States, less than 10% of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind are reading lists, according to a study by the Blind National Association. The same study showed that "only 10% of the blind children learn it."
By comparison, the Blindens National Federation notes that in the 1950s, half of all blind children learned Braille, as it was part of the curriculum in many schools for the blind.
The rise of sound technology is a factor behind the fall. At an age when students try to fit in with their peers, headphones that mask a disability can give the kids an incentive to reject the importance of learning blindly, Katulak said.
But even in the digital age, such as audio books, for example, the relevance of Braille, especially among new readers, cannot be replaced, according to Katulak.
"Audiobooks are amazing, but when you think about listening to an audiobook, it's really important information you're missing," she said. "You don't hear how words are spelled, grammar, punctuation, where begin and end a paragraph."
Katulak, a certified student of visually impaired students, said that students often wonder why they need to read Braille when their non-visually impaired classmates do not.
Learning blind is equally useful for visually impaired people who learn to read for students who are not visually impaired, she said. "If they just learn to read by listening, it will affect their writing and reading skills."
This is something parents understand when they see the data linking blind literature to long-term success, Katulak said. "We give them evidence to suggest that students, when teaching Braille, are more likely to gain employment and have greater professional gains as well, later in life."
At Lego's new Braille Brick, which is set to become commercial stores in 2020, Braille is also translated into numbers and letters that allow parents and teachers to follow.
NPRs Mia Venkat produced this story for broadcasting. Melissa Gray edited.