Accessible Astronomy: Touching the Night Sky

Caption: A page from “Touch the Universe.” Image courtesy of Noreen Grice.

The stunning images provided by space- and ground-based telescopes are visual wonders to behold. But those who are visually impaired can also enjoy astronomical images thanks to the work of Noreen Grice. For 25 years Grice has been working to make sure astronomy is accessible for everyone, including those who are blind or have low vision, as well as those who have impaired hearing. She has created of a series of books and other products that are designed to bring the universe to everyone.

Grice’s five astronomy books are accessible with text in both print and Braille along with pictures that are touchable. Using tactile overlays of line drawings of stars, planets, comets and other objects, real pictures come to life for the visually impaired. But they can also be shared by sighted people as well.

Listen to an interview with Noreen Grice by Carolyn Collins Petersen on the January 14th edition of 365 Days of Astronomy. Also visit Petersen’s website, The SpaceWriter, for additional info.

Her motivation came from a group of blind students who attended a planetarium show she presented in 1984 at the Boston Museum of Science, and she says those students opened her eyes to the need for accessibility in science education. “After the show was over, I asked them about their experience, and they told me the show ‘stunk,'” Grice said, “and it got me thinking — why can’t astronomy be accessible for everyone?”

She began by etching constellations, planets and star clusters, and galaxies on plastic by hand to use at the planetarium. But then she got the idea to try and create a book.

Touch the Invisible Sky by Noreen Grice, Simon Steel and Doris Daou

“For my first book, Touch the Stars, I wanted the pictures to be raised up and touchable, with the text imprinted in Braille,” Grice told Universe Today. “But when my second book came out, Touch the Universe, which was made using Hubble images, I felt like there was no way these pictures should just be line drawings because they are so colorful and beautiful. So from that point on that I’ve made the pictures in color and touchable, and the text is in both print and Braille.”

Grice said books that are just in Braille or are “touch only” books continue to make barriers for people. “One of the problems is that there are few resources for blind people, and those that are available are completely separate from books for the sighted,” she said. “I wanted to break down the barriers and bring people together so that everyone could use the same materials.”

That means that blind and sighted family members can enjoy Grice’s book together, and for students in a classroom, it means all students can use the same book, instead of having a “special” or different book for blind students.

“I want to break down barriers, and it is great that everyone in a classroom can use the same book,” she said. “Plus, it turns out our books are helpful for sighted people, as it makes it understandable for everyone, and provides a way to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles.”

Grice has worked in conjunction NASA and other astronomers and educators to create her books. Recently, she finished working on a book called Touch the Earth, which includes tactile images, and also has DVD for audio and sign language.

Noreen Grice at the AAS meeting, showing the Tactile Carina Nebula.

At the American Astronomical Society Meeting last week, Grice shared with astronomers the Tactile Carina Nebula, which was created from a large Hubble mosaic of images. By working with scientists Grice was able to include touchable variations for the different regions and objects in the image.

See this website for more info on the Tactile Carina Nebula.

Grice said she has had blind students contact her, or come up to her at National Federation of the Blind conventions who say because they read her books they have developed an interest in space and astronomy. “I know two students who are determined to be the first blind astronauts and another who wants to be an astronomer,” she said. “There is a whole universe out there, and I know that anyone can become a scientist and contribute to the scientific endeavor.”

Grice still works at the Boston Museum of Science and she shared that just recently a hearing impaired family came to the planetarium show. “I realized they were hearing impaired and told them we had captioning available,” Grice said. “It took me less than a minute to give them everything they needed, and they were so appreciative. The situation was a complete opposite of what it was in 1984, and it just confirmed that all my hard work in making the planetarium seamlessly accessible for everyone was worth it.”

For more information, check out You Can Do Astronomy, the website for Grice’s company