Technology allows visually impaired, blind to experience solar eclipse

Seeing next week's total solar eclipse isn't the only way to experience it. Two projects were developed to allow the visually impaired and blind be part of the astronomical event.

'We wanted people who are visually impaired to participate in that event along with everybody else'

Eclipse Soundscapes and the American Council for the Blind have developed ways for visually impaired and blind users to experience the total solar eclipse. (Reuters)

Four months ago, Henry Winter was asked to describe an eclipse to a colleague who had been blind since birth and was initially stumped because he couldn't use visual terms.

Winter, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, then remembered a colleague who had recounted the sound of crickets starting and stopping during an eclipse.

After retelling that story, Winter wanted to come up with something that didn't only focus on how astronomical events looked but also how they sounded and this summer's total solar eclipse was the perfect opportunity, he said.

"It's a huge event we wanted people who are visually impaired to participate in that event along with everybody else," Winter told CBC News.

Winter and a small team have now launched Eclipse Soundscapes, an app (already on iTunes with a Google version expected before Aug. 21) which can provide various ways for visually impaired and blind users to experience the eclipse.

The first experience will be to hear what's happening; with help from the National Centre for Accessible Media the app will give "illustrative descriptions" of what's happening during the eclipse.

The descriptions can be read either by the voiceover option on a smartphone or through a recording on the app, Winter said.

"We wanted to give everybody, even those who are sighted but maybe couldn't make it to the eclipse, a play-by-play of what it would be like if they were in the path of totality," he said.

A few months after the eclipse, the app will include recordings collected in national parks and by citizen scientists so people can have a sonic experience of the eclipse.

Winter said the app was designed with visually impaired and blind users at the forefront, and although it includes visuals for a sighted user it works with accessibility functions visually impaired users would be accustomed to.

Other senses at work

The app also has a "rumble map," which senses the touch on a picture of the sun on a screen and as a user scrolls across the sun they will hear noises and feel the device shake or rumble depending on where someone touches it.

I want them to engage in astronomy and astrophysics right alongside with me, I don't want them to do some downgraded version of science.- Henry Winter

This allows a user to experience the eclipse in their own way, he said adding that he hopes to adapt this app for other astronomical events.

"I want them to engage in astronomy and astrophysics right alongside with me, I don't want them to do some downgraded version of science," Winter said. "I don't want to give them this path that they have to explore the way I've laid it out. I want to make series of tools that will allow people to explore science in the way they see fit."

Eclipse Soundscapes isn't the only option for experiencing the eclipse without sight.

"For a blind person, they don't have the option of putting on glasses and getting a sense of (the eclipse). We wanted to provide that sense with words," Joel Snyder, director of the Audio Description Project, an initiative of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), told CBC News.

Expanding access to visual events

The Audio Description Project will have a special broadcast Monday afternoon during the eclipse on the ACB online radio station featuring live description from Nashville, Tenn.

"Since description is about providing access to a visual image or visual event I thought that would be perfect for this," he said.

The online broadcast can also benefit a fully-sighted person who doesn't have eclipse glasses or wants to hear what's happening, Snyder said.

Audio description for the blind community or people with low vision isn't exactly the same as the way someone would informally describe something to a friend, Snyder explained.

To give quality audio descriptions, Snyder said a person needs to understand "what is most critical to an understanding and appreciation of the visual image."

The best audio translation is about editing out the unnecessary and "putting it all together with words that are vivid, imaginative and succinct."

How to watch CBC's eclipse coverage

On Monday, Aug. 21, the sun will be eclipsed by the moon. While the path of totality will stretch across a swath of the U.S. — from Oregon to South Carolina — for the first time in nearly a century, Canadian sky-watchers will be treated to a partial eclipse.

To mark this celestial show, CBC News will broadcast a live special, hosted by Hannah Thibedeau, starting at 1 p.m. ET. Watch it on CBC News Network or via live stream on will also bring you on-the-ground coverage from sites across North America through our live blog, kicking off at 11 a.m. ET. You can also follow along on Facebook and YouTube.


Nicole Riva is a multi-platform writer and social media presenter for CBC News based in Toronto.