Future Reflections         Convention Report 2010

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by Noreen Grice

Noreen Grice explains astronomyFrom the Editor: For the past twenty-six years Noreen Grice has been finding ways to make the study of astronomy accessible to blind people. She is the founder and director of You Can Do Astronomy LLC, and is the author of several books on the stars and the solar system that include tactile graphics.

Twenty-six years ago I was a college student, majoring in astronomy. During the summer before my senior year at Boston University I started a part-time job in the planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science.

Not long after I started working at the museum, a group of blind students stood in line for one of my planetarium shows. I felt nervous when I saw them, and asked the planetarium manager what I should do. "Just help them to their seats, that's all," he said.

I helped the blind students to their seats. Then I welcomed everyone to the planetarium and pressed the button to start the show. The show was pre-recorded, so I just sat in the console. At the end of the show I got back on the microphone and thanked everyone for visiting the planetarium.

If you've heard my story before, you know what happened next. The audience walked past the console toward the exit. I wondered what the blind students thought of the planetarium, so I walked around the booth and asked them. They told me bluntly, "The show stunk." Then they walked away.

That moment changed my life. I vowed to make astronomy accessible to blind people. I didn't know how to do it, but I was determined to figure it out.

Over the years I created tactile astronomy images to accompany all of the planetarium shows. I also wrote several accessible astronomy books: Touch the Stars; Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy; Touch the Sun: A NASA Braille Book; The Little Moon Phase Book; and Touch the Invisible Sky: A Multi-Wavelength Braille Book Featuring Tactile NASA Images. I also designed the tactile graphics for the Solar System Radio Explorer Exhibit at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Visitor Center, the Tactile Carina Nebula poster for the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the tactile maps in the new NASA book, Touch the Earth. To help other educators learn to make their programs and facilities more accessible, I established my own consulting company called You Can Do Astronomy.

I am sighted and I became a member of the National Federation of the Blind in 2003, when Barbara Cheadle asked me to come and present a couple of accessible astronomy sessions for students at the national convention in Louisville. Since then, I've been to many national conventions, presenting astronomy programs and participating in a variety of workshops. You'll find me with the folks from Connecticut.

Beyond the conventions, I've been an astronomy instructor for two Circle of Life Academies, one Junior Science Academy, and two Youth Slams for high school students. I've worked with students who are blind or have low vision. Whether they explored tactile star patterns, modeled the seasons and moon phases, measured craters, imaged telescopic views of the night sky by touch, these students fully participated in each experience without barriers.

Last summer, the "Slammin' in Space" class at the Youth Slam went on a Moon Mission at the Maryland Challenger Center. If you're not familiar with the Challenger Centers, they are teaching facilities sponsored by the spouses of the astronauts who died aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. Each Challenger Center has a very realistic Mission Control Room with specific stations for crew. The stations include Navigation, Life Support, Science, Engineering, Communications, Data, and Medicine. A nearby room is a reproduction of the interior of a space laboratory station with work areas for the mission control counterparts. The navigator in Mission Control communicates by radio with the navigator in the Space Station, the engineer in Mission Control communicates with the engineer on the Space Station, and so on. The students must rely on each other to accomplish the mission.

About a week before the students arrived for the Youth Slam, I traveled to the Maryland Challenger Center with Youth Slam Coordinator Mary Jo Hartle and my co-instructor, Ben Wentworth. I took photos and made careful note of the exact requirements for each crew station. For example, the Navigation Stations in Mission Control and on the Space Station required the crew to view images on a computer to choose the best method for achieving orbit. The engineering crew in the Space Station needed to build a probe from a visual graphic display as the engineer in Mission Control described which components to connect first. The medical crew on the Space Station had to monitor the health of the Space Station's crew by taking vital signs. Other crew members needed to complete a visual chemical test to check the cleanliness of the space station's water and classify the geology of lunar samples. No problem. I created tactile diagrams, 3-D models, attached Braille labels, and substituted talking medical and chemical instruments for visual ones. There wasn't much that could not be made accessible. Steve Booth and staff at NFB headquarters produced Braille versions of the crew manifest.

What do you think happened on the day of our mission? The students went to their assigned stations, communicated with each other, conducted experiments, corrected an emergency oxygen leak, and successfully landed on the moon. It was great!

As we left the Challenger Center and headed back to campus, we talked with the students. They said that the Moon Mission was one of the most exciting things they had ever done.

I never understand why people assume that students who have low vision or are blind cannot be just as successful as their sighted counterparts. That assumption is just not true.

Is it possible for a blind person to become an astronomer or an astronaut? Of course! I know two great candidates, students who are NFB members--Chelsea Cook from Virginia and Terry Garret from Colorado.

While I was developing tactile astronomy images back at the Museum of Science, I started to think about other ways to make the planetarium more accessible. With grant funding we were able to install an assistive listening system with volume amplification for people who are hard of hearing. We also added a modular captioning system for deaf visitors. The captioning system, it turns out, was often requested by visitors who spoke English as a second language. They had no problem hearing but told me "It was easier to understand English by reading rather than listening." I was also able to relocate wheelchair accessible seating from one restricted area to several locations within the planetarium. This allowed people to sit with their friends rather than requiring all wheelchair users to be herded together like cattle.

I live in New Britain, Connecticut, and I am an active member of the NFB Central Connecticut Chapter. We meet once a month at the Plainville Library. Recently, I borrowed a library book called Accessible Connecticut. The book details accessibility resources at many Connecticut museums. I found that most children's museums and many science museums offered hands-on activities, but accessibility was extremely limited at art and history museums. Out of thirty-seven museums in Connecticut, twenty were described as not being very accessible to a person who is blind. The other seventeen museums had some accessible hands-on components. However, these seventeen museums often required blind visitors to give advance notice of a week or more, with the idea that the staff could have time to gather some hands-on materials. Any deaf visitor who required an interpreter needed to give two weeks notice. I have to wonder why.

Why doesn't a person with a visual or hearing impairment have the same access to a museum, at any time, as a person with vision or hearing? Not only do these museum policies seem unfair to me, I find them personally outrageous. Making a museum accessible is good for all visitors. For example, many sighted people have different learning styles and do best with tactile materials. Accessibility also helps the museum's bottom line by raising attendance. I think it takes more effort to make excuses why museums and classes can't be made accessible than it would take simply to make them accessible.

I no longer work at the Boston Museum of Science, but I have to tell you about the very last planetarium show I gave. It was Christmas Eve Day, 2009. As usual, I was taking tickets for the planetarium show. Visitors handed me their tickets and I ripped off a portion and handed them back a ticket stub. A woman with her husband and children approached the planetarium entrance and handed me their tickets. When I handed her back the ticket stubs she said "thank you" in a way that told me she was deaf. Without thinking, I said, "We have captioning for this program." "You have captioning? We need captioning!" she answered. A few minutes later I had the captioning system set up at their seats.

I stepped into the console, welcomed everyone to the planetarium, and pressed the button to start the pre-recorded holiday program. During the show, I noticed the dim flicker of the captioning display and the silhouette of the family reading the illuminated text.

After the show, the audience walked past the console toward the exit. As this family approached, I came around the booth to ask them how they liked the planetarium show. They smiled and the mother joyfully said, "What a wonderful thing! Captions in the planetarium! We'll be back!"

As they walked away, I could not help thinking how a planetarium or any museum can transform from an inaccessible place to a destination to be enjoyed by all visitors, any time, without advance notice, and regardless of visual, hearing, or physical abilities.

And I still wonder, why can't every classroom and museum be an accessible and welcoming place for all? I know it is possible.

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