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The Touch of Astronomy

Mercury Summer 2007 Table of Contents

tactile image of Jupiter
Photo courtesy of B. Wentworth

by Noreen Grice

I should have known. When I was twelve years old, I entered the 7th-grade science fair at Lincoln Junior High School in Malden, Massachusetts, with a project about the planets. I cut apart Styrofoam balls and glued them to a piece of cardboard. After some expert coloring with my trusty box of Crayola crayons, I had created a 3-D model of the Solar System. I did not know at the time but this would be my first tactile astronomy illustration!

Several decades have passed, and I still have that Solar System model. It hangs in my home office, and I often gaze at it while I sit at my computer working on accessibility projects.

I always knew that I wanted to become an astronomer, but I did not know in what direction it would lead. As a child, one of my favorite places to visit was the planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston: I was amazed to see so many stars, and the person who spoke in the dark always had interesting things to say.

During the summer of my senior year at Boston University, I began working part-time at the Museum of Science. One day, I was taking tickets for a planetarium show and noticed a group of people who were blind, in line for the next show. I had guessed they were blind because they carried red and white canes and shifted the canes side to side as they moved forward in line. I nervously asked the manager on duty what I should do. He said that I should "help them to their seats. That's all you have to do."

Once the audience was seated, I welcomed everyone to the show. Then I pushed a button on the computer and the show began automatically. At the end of the program, I asked these visitors how they liked the show. They replied bluntly, "it stunk" and continued on their way.

I'll never forget that empty feeling of being told that an experience you love could be so disappointing to someone else. Why was the planetarium show so bad?

The next day I visited the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. I wandered through the campus of brick buildings, pine trees, and green lawns and found the Library. I asked the librarian if they had any astronomy books; she directed me to a tall stack of Isaac Asimov books. Many of the books had spines wider than eight centimeters. They were quite hefty!

I pulled some of those books down and began flipping through them. The pages were full of Braille, but something was missing. "Do braille books have pictures?" I asked. The librarian replied that not many have pictures because the illustrations are expensive and labor intensive. And then it hit me. The planetarium was a poor experience because the visual images were not accessible.

I suddenly felt a connection with these people. Although I am not visually impaired, I spent many years growing up in a public housing project outside of Boston. There were times when fellow students and their parents would tell me that I was not the same as other kids because I lived in the projects...that I was not welcome in some places because I was a "project kid." I never really understood why people said that to me because it made me feel bad and did not really describe the person I was inside.

When I stood in the Perkins Library and realized that visually impaired students face barriers as I had years before, I knew I was in a position to make a positive change for them. I thought, "I'm going to do something about this" and began my quest to make astronomy accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired.

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