NEWTON – When Matthew Shifrin was five, his babysitter, Lilya Finkel, was driving him down the street and happened to see a discarded box filled to the brim with Legos on the side of the road. She had a hunch her young friend would enjoy them, so she pulled over, and the two of them hauled the giant crate into the car.
Her hunch was spot-on. Shifrin, a 22-year-old Newton native now studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, was born sight-impaired, and building with Legos helped him better understand the physical world around him.
“I’ve learned a lot about the world from Legos,” he said. “As a blind person, you know that the Empire State Building is a monument, and that King Kong occasionally hangs out on top of it, but beyond that, you don’t really know much. I could read you historical facts, but really understanding the identity of the building is beyond you. But if you build that building out of Legos, you really understand what makes it so iconic, and that helps you in a larger context … it gives you a reference.”
However, if constructing the Empire State Building out of thousands of tiny, semi-identical pieces is challenging for people with sight, imagine what it was like for Shifrin. Someone needed to sit with him and read him the instructions detailing which pieces he needed to use. The instructions were visual, and the pieces weren’t arranged in any particular order, so even small projects could take hours to build. Sometimes, Shifrin needed to abandon projects altogether.
But Finkel, at once a sort of governess, mentor, and dear friend who passed away in 2017, knew there had to be a better way. For Shifrin’s 13th birthday, Finkel renamed each of the pieces of a particular Lego set in a way that was easier for him to remember, and reconfigured the instructions so that they followed a more intuitive sequence for the blind. She then rewrote the instructions in Braille, and for the first time in his life, Shifrin was able to complete a structure – a replica of the medieval Persian fortress called the Alamut Castle – on his own. Soon, Finkel and Shifrin translated and reconfigured the instructions of over 20 different Lego sets. Finkel also started emailing the new instructions to Shifrin, and a computer program would read them aloud to him.
Shifrin, who knows firsthand the ways that Legos can benefit the blind, wanted to make sure that a blind person would be able to construct any set of Legos. After a few years of trying, he managed to get in touch with the Lego Group. Last August, with Shifrin’s input, the company released audio and Braille instructions for free online, and is currently in the process of testing how well blind people are able to follow them. The same instructions are also available on a website that Shifrin designed called legofortheblind.com.
Shifrin has gotten to personally see how these new instructions have helped other blind people. “I had a building set with blind kids and it was incredible, because they started building, and they had ah-hah moments,” he said. “They were thrilled that they could build this independently, just like their sighted friends, and sighted siblings … it was such a thrill to give them that opportunity.”
But Lego-building is just one of a few tasks Shifrin has helped make easier for the blind, and it is not the only high-profile partnership he’s undertaken. He is currently collaborating with NPR on a podcast called “Blind Guy Travels” about his exciting adventures around the world. Global travel can be especially complex for the blind, so Shifrin has used 3D audio technology that gives listeners the impression that they are right there with him.
“I really wanted to encourage blind people to get out there and travel, so I used 3D sound, which is sound that’s all around your head – behind you, above you, below you,” he said. Listeners will get to virtually visit the accordion capital of the world in Italy, get hypnotized, crawl through a narrow tunnel, and sing opera in a cave in Israel as nearby bats cheer along. The podcast also will focus on the full experience of being blind, exploring issues of representation in media, and trusting a sighted world that could easily take advantage of you.
Shifrin also is working with MIT researchers on Project Daredevil, named after a blind comic book superhero, which is working on a virtual reality headset that will allow blind people to feel like they’re comic book characters jumping, flipping, and flying. “I had been a comic book fan since I was a child and my dad would read me these Daredevil comics, and I always found it really ironic that he, being the only blind superhero ever, is represented in a medium that is completely inaccessible to blind people, and as I grew older I tried to figure out how I could access these books on my own,” he said. Shifrin found a website of comic book scripts full of physical directions for characters, which he realized was how he would be able to experience the comics himself.
“I thought, ‘What if you make a motion-generating helmet that makes you feel like you’re falling or flipping or flying through the air?’ That would be a very engaging, very physical virtual reality experience for blind people,” said Shifrin.
Shifrin may build futuristic headsets with MIT programmers, but his principal concern and future career goal is actually to be a musician and songwriter. He is currently studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studies both the accordion and musicals. He has written a musical about ants that played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and a musical loosely based on “The Little Prince.”
Shifrin, who is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants from Moscow who arrived before he was born, said that writing musicals helps him connect with his Jewish roots. “I do a Jewish music program, and I do a lot of Yiddish songs, and a lot of Yiddish opera from the ’30s … it’s been really fun to go back to that time and engage with that culture,” he said. “It’s been a major influence.”