Space Is More Accessible With Eclipse Soundscapes
By Karen Anderson and Kelsey Perett
Blind people are often kept out of scientific experiences, events, or careers. I have personally been told that something is too visual, or simply won’t have any meaning for me because I have been blind for my whole life. My participation in the National Federation of the Blind has helped me understand that there are ways for blind people to participate and contribute to any scientific field with the right accommodations. We don’t often find organizations that believe this as passionately as we do though, and that are willing to work to make it as easy for us to participate as it would be for our sighted counterparts. Working with my colleagues at the Eclipse Soundscapes Project has reminded me that attitudes are shifting regarding blind people in science. I am excited to participate in their project, and am hopeful about future projects like it.
Eclipses Are an Accessible, Multisensory Experience with The Eclipse Soundscapes Project
Solar eclipses have traditionally been considered a visual phenomenon. For this reason, people who are blind or have low vision have often been left out of opportunities to experience and learn about eclipses.
However, there are many ways to experience a solar eclipse using your other senses. You may feel a change in temperature when the Moon blocks the Sun, or hear a change in animal sounds when it suddenly becomes dark in the middle of the day.
The Eclipse Soundscapes Project is a NASA Citizen Science Project that will study how eclipses affect life on Earth. The project will encourage participants to learn and observe using all of their senses during the October 13, 2023 annular eclipse and the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse. While we have partnered with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to put an intentional focus on the inclusion of people who are blind or have low vision, the project is designed to be inclusive of everyone. Rather than design a project for one specific group, we want to encourage people of all abilities to learn alongside one another. We believe science benefits from the inclusion of many people and perspectives!
The Eclipse Soundscapes Commitment to Accessibility
We’ve tried to make our project as accessible as possible by:
- Presenting information in multiple modes and using features such as alt text, audio description, and Closed Captioning
- Offering different participation options where participation is not hindered by cost, location, time, or other barriers to access
- Considering differences in language and literacy and making our written content accessible to most readers
- Consulting with focus groups, universal design professionals, and thought leaders like the NFB
You can read more about the Eclipse Soundscapes Project’s accessibility mission on EclipseSoundscapes.org.
Our partnership with NFB and support from Blind and Low Vision consultants has led to some particularly fruitful project developments. These include the “bump dots” that enhance the accessibility of our audio recording devices, and a number of website and participation instruction improvements.
Bump Dots and the AudioMoth Recorder
The AudioMoth Recorder is an integral part of the Eclipse Soundscapes Project Data Collector Role. Data Collectors will use this recording device to capture audio information (soundscapes) in the days before, during, and after the 2023/2024 eclipses. In order to configure the device correctly, participants need to orient themselves to the AudioMoth’s various buttons and ports. To make this process more accessible, especially to a user who is blind or low vision, BLV Consultant Lindsay Yazzolino suggested using “bump dots.”
Bump dots are a common household tool often used to cushion cabinet doors. “We learned that bump dots are a staple in the blind and low vision communities,” said MaryKay Severino, co-investigator for the Eclipse Soundscapes Project. “They are frequently used for tactile cues.”
Each data collection kit sent out by Eclipse Soundscapes Project includes an AudioMoth recorder with bump dots to indicate the switch, the MicroSD card, and the USB Port. Now, all users can find and respond to these useful tactile cues.
NFB Focus Groups and Website Accessibility
Most of the Eclipse Soundscapes learning experience takes place on our website: EclipseSoundscapes.org. For this reason, it is important that our website is accessible and easy to navigate. We are improving the experience all the time with input from the NFB and Reginé Gilbert’s students at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
NFB focus groups have provided feedback on the website layout, participant instructions, and other project elements.
Each semester, we work with Reginé Gilbert and her students at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering to identify a new focus area where digital accessibility can be improved. “It’s important that students get hands-on experience,” Gilbert said. Severino added that this project gives students the opportunity to practice their education on “real world examples, and learn that accessibility is a part of their job.”
With the October 14, 2023 annular eclipse just around the corner, we’re excited to share the wondrous experience of a solar eclipse with people of all abilities and backgrounds. We hope this educational experience will help demonstrate that eclipses are not a purely visual event.
“By participating in this project, we are helping to develop innovative nonvisual tools for blind people to explore a dramatically visual experience through sound and to create opportunities for blind citizen scientists to learn and contribute to the body of knowledge we gather about our universe,” said Mark A. Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “Our expertise comes from our blind members and their lived experiences, and we commend the Eclipse Soundscapes Citizen Science Project for recognizing the centrality of the role that this expertise must play in its exciting and groundbreaking work.”