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Making Astronomy Accessible for Blind and Partially Sighted People

Posted: 15/11/2012 00:00

From an early age children are taught about the world of Space.
From the very first steps that man ever took on the moon, to the speculated possibility of alien life on another Planet.

For decades science fiction has dominated a large portion of the media. Children are fascinated by blockbusters such as Stephen Speilburg's "ET," George Lucas' cult classic "Star Wars," and the all time classic BBC's "Doctor Who." With all these influences it's no wonder why children announce that cultivated saying

'I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.'

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In the UK alone Astronomy has grown into becoming a popular sub culture. Professor Brian Cox is now recognised among the mass audiences as being the "peoples person" of Astronomy.

For a sighted person it is extremely easy to become addicted by what the night sky has to offer to the naked eye, let alone with a telescope. It would take the average person thirty minutes to take a brief tour of the constellations on a clear, cloudless night.

However, when we take Astronomy into consideration it is majorly correlated with visual perceptions. According to RNIB's latest statistics there are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss and an estimated 25, 000 of that figure are children.

When all things are considered this is a hard fact to deal with, especially as we are a nation of Astronomy lovers. Living in the current climate Astrophysics is growing more advanced and scientists across the globe are exploring new astronomical avenues every day.

I myself am visually impaired and have studied a GCSE in astronomy the Royal Greenwich Observatory last year. I am currently undertaking some short courses and my Guide Dog Unity has even been awarded the name 'Astro Dog' by the staff who work there.

One of the ways it which Astronomy can be made more accessible for blind and partially sighted people is the creation of tactile, braille, and audio described images. This is exactly what the charity "Living Paintings" is aiming to achieve.

"Living Paintings" is a small charity dedicated to creating innovative books that explain the visual world to blind and partially sighted children and young people. They are run by a small group of volunteers who create, paint and audio describe these books. The books cover a wide variety of subjects from fashion, science, popular fiction, and the arts. The service is available to all Visually impaired children and young people on a free loan service.

They are currently working on two of their latest Astronomy projects. "Ka-Boom: A Young Person's Guide to the Universe" a guide book of the Universe and Constellations for Visually Impaired teenagers. That offers tactile pictures of various well known deep sky objects and constellations in the night sky. The second project "Sky Seeker" a fictional storybook about space exploration for the under 7-11 year olds with three tactical pictures and an audio CD. These books were funded by the "Peter Harrison Foundation" who also funded the renowned Royal Greenwich Observatories Planetarium.

Julia Caines, Peter Harrison Foundation Administrator, gave me her view on the project and what she hoped it would offer for visually impaired children and young people.

'We really hope that it is going to benefit blind and partially blind children and young people. When we were first approached by "Living Paintings" we thought the project was so unique and beneficial to help visually impaired people learn about astronomy.'

Liz Davies, the Production Manager, is very keen on the project as it offers

'a sensory experience to teach astronomy to visually impaired people.'

Living Paintings are currently in the production stages of this project, but already it is prominent that this project will be very successful.

As I am working with the charity on two of their latest projects and being a proofreader for some of their work. I have already had the opportunity to preview some of the tactile moulds that will be used.

On inspection of these tactile images of the constellations Ursa Major (little bear,) Orion and the Andromeda Galaxy. Shutting my eyes for a brief moment and feeling the tactile images, they offer a true representation of how deep sky objects appear to a sighted person.

Living Paintings have previously constructed an astronomy book, similar to the nature of the current Guide. The previous book "Touch and See: A History of Space Exploration" explains previous manned and unmanned missions into space. Missions such as the "NASA Apollo Space Missions" and "The International Space Station."

The book explains in full detail previous space explorations, by giving and audio segment to imitate the life of a real life astronaut. The driving idea of the project stemmed from the true fact that an member of the general public could contact NASA via a specific telephone number and have a conversation with a real life Astronaut.

'We used this idea to our advantage and in the audio track there is a segment which involves a child having a conversation with a real astronaut about the Solar System.'

The books will encourage and inspire Visually Impaired Children and Young people to explore the cosmos. Even if they cannot physically see it, there remains the opportunity for them to develop their scientific knowledge and to gain an understanding of the night sky boasts.

The previous book constructed by the charity received a high amount of positive feedback. Regarding how easy and enjoyable the book made learning about astronomy to visually impaired youths.

The library service is available to organisations, schools and for parents to interact with their children. One teacher of a Visually Impaired student relayed how the book gave their student a vital source of information.

'This book was a wonderful chance to access information in a fun way. It was a very valuable way of presenting the idea of the solar system to a blind child.'

The fact that the charity offers such a significant, intellectual recource to all of human kind is an key thing to a person living with sight loss. Through the simple thing of a tactile, audio book "Living Paintings" are offering a vital link to the cosmos to visually impaired people.

'The books will enable Blind and Partially sighted Children and Young People to learn the dynamics of the Universe' said Liz.

Knowledge of how life began and of life beyond our Solar System is arguably the most valuable class of knowledge to the human mind. Astronomy and science in general is not an elitist form of knowledge and all individuals should be able to ask important questions about the Universe.

"Living Paintings" have made a significant breakthrough in the barriers that visually impaired people face when considering Astronomy. Their latest projects are in inspiration and an example that other charities should follow.

Liz finished by stating the main purpose of their charity

'the main crux of the charity is to make the visual world accessible in an interesting way for all Blind and Partially Sighted Children and Young People.'

The book will be available in 2013, as it is still in drafting stages at present. The finished project that will be a success and an important milestone to the Visually Impaired people who use them.

Congratulations to "Living Paintings" for overcoming such a barrier and aiding the process for a visual impaired child's development.

http://www.livingpaintings.org

 

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