Touching The Invisible Sky

Cover illustration for Touch the Invisible Sky uses raised lines and textures to depict Kepler's Supernova Remnant.
Cover illustration for Touch the Invisible Sky uses raised lines and textures to depict Kepler’s Supernova Remnant. [Source: NPR]

Touch the Invisible Sky, a new astronomy book for blind readers, transforms visual images into tactile representations accessible to the finger-tip. It isn’t the first book of its kind, but astronomer Noreen Grice brings to it an admirable sense of purpose. She tells a story on NPR that traces her commitment to accessible astronomy to a formative experience at the Museum of Science in Boston, where she works today.

In 1984, Grice was a 21-year-old studying astronomy at Boston University. She had a job at the planetarium, and one Saturday, a group of blind people came to the show.

“I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know anyone who was blind,” says Grice. Her manager told her to just help the people to their seats.

After the show was over, Grice went up to the group.

“I said, ‘So how did you like the show?’ And there was an uncomfortable pause,” she recalls. “And then they said, ‘This stunk’ and walked away. And that left me speechless because I thought the planetarium was, like, the best place in the world.”

The next day, Grice took a bus to a nearby school for the blind. She found its library and looked for astronomy books. They were thick books, printed in Braille.

“But something was missing. I said, ‘Where are the pictures? Are there any pictures in these books?'”

The librarian explained that it’s expensive to translate an image into raised lines and textures that a person can feel with their fingers, so textured images are uncommon in books for the blind. Grice hated the idea that blind people weren’t getting the same kind of cool astronomy books she loved as a kid.

“I had grown up in the housing projects outside Boston,” says Grice. “People would say, ‘you’re a project kid, you’re not welcome here.’ I understood what it meant to be labeled. And I didn’t really know how to make astronomy accessible. But I thought, ‘I’ll try.'”

I really like the way Grice understood the problem of limitations and attitudes in terms of her own experience as a kid from the projects. It underscores the fact that access to knowledge is a common problem, not a “special” one. The future of accessibility, for blind people and sighted people alike, depends on breaking down common barriers.

Here’s how the National Federation of the Blind describes the book:

“Touch the Invisible Sky” is accessible to both blind and sighted readers. The book presents celestial objects as they appear through visible-light telescopes and in different spectral regions that are invisible to the naked eye. It uses a combination of Braille and traditional text. A variety of tactile textures and symbols were chosen to represent different physical features and characteristics of the images.

What I haven’t found yet is how to get the book.

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