With only a few hours left until the solar eclipse starts in the United States, it made me wonder how people with visual impairments are able to “enjoy” the event. Millions of people without any kind of visual impairment don’t have to worry about not being able see the solar eclipse. Or even view any of the images that NASA is taking. But what about those people who can’t see? You might be thinking – well, they can’t enjoy it. And that’s just a fact of life. Life isn’t fair. But should we prevent people with disabilities from being able to view these kinds of events?
Not according to NASA. They have developed a project called the Eclipse Soundscapes project, which aims to deliver a multi-sensory experience. Again, you’re probably wondering how someone who is blind is going to be able to enjoy something they can’t see. Well, that’s where the multi-sensory comes into play. The project will include audio descriptions of the eclipse in real time, as well as recordings of the changing environmental sounds during the eclipse and an interactive rumble map app that will allow users to visualize the eclipse through touch. This will target their other senses – like touching a map is a tactile experience for someone who is blind or with low vision.
Many museums and art galleries offer similar technological experiences for people with disabilities. Instead of being able to see a particular artifact, a museum will often make a replica. One that can be touched by people with disabilities in order to provide them with a similar experience that other people enjoy. Which, in my opinion is amazing. This is inclusion at its best.
The idea for this project came from Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter. Winter is a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard Simthsonian CfA with a penchant for scientific engagement projects. Winter noticed a deficit in accessibility while building a solar wall exhibits for museums. He noted that some of the so called, “accessible” exhibits only included the exhibit’s name in Braille. But we know that’s not really enough. Winter began to brainstorm an astrophysics project that would use a multi-sensory approach in order to engage a larger percentage of the population. And that is how the Eclipse Soundscapes was born.
For people with a visual impairment, hearing is the sense that they rely on more than others. And it’s a way to experience the eclipse. Soundscapes change dramatically as the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun. Because of the change in the light, nocturnal animals stir into action. Eclipse Soundscapes is working with organizations to record the auditory fluctuations. Many of these recordings will use microphones that simulate human hearing, thus creating a sensation of 3D sound for listeners. The August 21 eclipse will only last a few hours, but Eclipse Soundscapes won’t stop there. The app will live on in an open source primary documentation of the historic event. And act as a model for making science accessible to all.
Like I’ve said a hundred times, I love to see when technology is put to good use in order to help people. People with disabilities are often marginalized because they are “different”. We make assumptions about what they can and can’t do. And we don’t stop to realize that being different isn’t a bad thing. Having different abilities isn’t a bad thing. It just means we have to do more to look at our products and services through a more inclusive lens. NASA didn’t have to make this app, but I’m glad they did. I’m glad they recognized a gap and came up with a way to fill it.
If you’re interested in the best places to watch the solar eclipse, check out our article on SaintelDaily.com