British Columbia

Fireworks for the blind at this year's Celebration of Light

A Vancouver group has come up with a novel way to let the blind or visually impaired experience this year's fireworks celebration.

Vancouver group creates fingerworks to translate fireworks for the blind

VocalEye used a tactile technique to translate the fireworks display for the visually impaired. (Rick Lin)

Vancouver's Celebration of Light fireworks draws thousands to to Vancouver's beaches to watch the sky light up with colour.

But the spectacle can leave the visually impaired or blind feeling left out.—

"I'm there and I know that something gorgeous is occurring in the sky because you can feel that," said Colin van Uchelen, whose eyesight started deteriorating due to condition called retinitis pigmentosa.

"You can hear it on the beach. All of a sudden everyone in the crowd becomes silent, and it's at those moments that I just yearn for my eyesight or yearn to somehow reconnect or be part of that moment in terms of the beauty of the fireworks."

Now a Vancouver non-profit has created a way for the blind or visually impaired to enjoy the fireworks spectacle by drawing on participants backs.


The technique, known as fingerworks, was created by VocalEye, a non-profit that normally offers verbal descriptions of live theatre performances and public events.

Steph Kirkland, executive director of VocalEye, draws on Colin van Uchelen's back with her hands to bring the fireworks display to life in his imagination. (Rick Lin)

During last year's fireworks event, members of VocalEye tried to verbally describe the spectacle for people who are visually impaired but found it was a real challenge.

"It just ended up being kind of like a stream of jargon and colour, ya know, red peony, red peony, gold chrysanthemum and gold chrysanthemum. It just didn't do it justice," said Steph Kirkland, executive director of VocalEye, on CBC`s The Early Edition.

Then at one point during the display last year there was a trailing ember from a big barrage of fireworks and one lone ember in particular beautifully glowed its way down to the water.

Kirkland says she was describing it verbally to van Uchelen when he suggested she trace it onto his arm at the rate it was falling to the water.

That was the doorway into the tactile technique, she says.

Body as canvas

Fingerworks uses a person's back as a kind of canvas to translate the motion of fireworks through touch.

"The idea is to stimulate, with these tactile cues, the receiver's imagination so they can picture in their own minds the fireworks themselves," said Kirkland.

The technique allows for the translation of the spacial location and intensity of the fireworks.

The barge is drawn near the lower back, most of the fireworks are drawn near the mid shoulders and really high ones on the back of the head.

For strobe, Kirkland says she flicks her fingers against someone's back or for the peony effects has all her fingers come together in the centre of the back and then explodes them out into a circle.

Steph Kirkland (far left) says the fingerworks technique is great because it's accessible to almost anyone. (Rick Lin)

For van Uchelen the technique has made a big difference in his enjoyment of the fireworks festival.

"For the first time in years I didn't feel like I was missing out. I felt that I was being included in some way in what other people were seeing through their eyes," said van Uchelen.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled "Fireworks for the visually impaired"


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