Astronomers Without Borders is dedicated to sharing the wonder of Space with everyone. We are excited to announce our new program, OpenSpace! Our new initiative is designed to enhance accessibility, diversity, and disability inclusion in astronomy through our global outreach programs.
Use the links below to read how you can craft your event to include a specific disability.
Here are some general tips on how you can make your events accessible.
1) Get to know what disability services and organizations are nearby. If you live near a University, check to see if they have a Disability Services Department and consult them for information on community organizations with which you may connect.
2) Search for schools for blind and/or Deaf students in your area.
3) Research non-profits, disability rights activist groups, and community clubs that cater to people with disabilities. Start by forming relationships with members of these organizations. Tell them about your interest in accessible astronomy outreach and ask if this is something in which they would like to participate. These types of connections extend the reach of your event and inform them about your outreach efforts. Fostering this relationship of collaboration and mutual trust with your audience is of the utmost importance. You do not need to have any prior experience with disability inclusion, just a willingness to reach out to schools or organizations near you and work together to ensure the inclusion of their members.
Read through the guidelines below and craft an event that is accessible for anyone who may wish to attend.
Please note that these are simply guidelines that merely serve as a starting point for making your event inclusive. Do you have other accessibility ideas, recommendations, or resources? Share your thoughts with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether a planetarium show or a science lecture, consider speaking as descriptively as possible. For example, instead of saying, “As you see from this graph,” describe data and details of the graph. If you are showing fly-by animation of Saturn, better engage your audience members by describing texture and composition of the rings, color and brightness of the planet.
Don't forget to keep descriptive language in mind when discussing safety issues. Instead of telling audience members to find the exit nearest to them, describe the layout of the room and identify those exits verbally. This is a great practice regardless of whether or not there are blind people in the room.
Consider describing the physical layout of the space at the beginning of the event, such as where are the telescopes, exhibits, bathrooms, volunteers, etc.? Providing this initial navigational information can help blind attendees create a mental map of the space.
Incorporate Tactile Resources
3D prints and tactile books are now readily available. There are many low-cost options that do not require 3D printers or expensive technologies. Be creative and use pushpins to make constellations maps, or household materials, like paper plates and cookies to create a solar eclipse model. One great option is to create a model of the solar system with the sizes to scale using clay, sports balls, etc. This helps all learners literally grasp the scale of our solar system, regardless of whether blind or not. In the sample scale below, each number represents the diameter of an object.
Sun = 8 ft. (2.5 m) weather balloon
Mercury = .85 cm ball of clay (or pebble)
Venus = 2 cm ball of clay
Earth = 2.2 cm ball of clay
Moon = .6 cm ball of clay
Mars = 1.2 cm ball of clay
Jupiter = Basketball (24 cm)
Saturn = Volleyball or Soccer ball (20 cm)
Uranus = Softball or large orange (8.9 cm)
Neptune = Softball or large orange (8.6 cm)
Pluto = 4 cm ball of clay
If you are like most people and don’t happen to have an 8 foot-diameter weather balloon lying around the house, fear not! You can create a 2D representation of this by taping down rope on the floor in the shape of an 8-foot-wide circle. Ensure the rope is securely taped down and in no way a tripping hazard. It should create a bump on a floor large enough to feel with a foot or a cane.
Help People Try the Telescope
Vision is a spectrum. Depending on someone’s exact visual impairment, it may still be possible for them to observe astronomical bodies through a telescope. If someone can detect light and darkness, they may be able to perceive the brightness of the Moon.
By inviting schools and organizations for blind people to your astronomy event, you may be creating an opportunity for many people to have a monumental experience. Seeing Space for the very first time. Be sure to give people time and let them know what they’re looking for.
Listen to the Sounds of Space
There are many auditory ways to experience the Universe. There are a number of free, open source programs (such as XSonify) that allow you to convert scientific data into sound. NASA has a multitude of spacecraft that capture radio emissions from astronomical bodies and are published for all to hear. Blind students will be blown away by the ability hear the sounds of Saturn or lightning on Jupiter. It is an exciting way to experience space and an excellent multi-sensory supplement for any astronomy event.
If you want to take things a step further and offer a hands-on approach, there are some great tools for amateur radio astronomy that you can use to capture your very own sounds from Space! NASA’s Radio JOVE allows users to capture and record radio signals from Jupiter and the Sun.
The vast majority of the Universe is made of dark matter or so far away that it is absolutely invisible. Astronomers are tasked with the mission of exploring and navigating the unseen, something that blind people do every day. Blind people are especially well-equipped to investigate this invisible Universe and to develop new techniques for furthering the search of the unseen, whether this be dark matter, exoplanets, or black holes. Emphasize to learners that there is so much discovery waiting to happen, and they have very valuable skills to contribute.
If you get the sense that someone is looking for something, it is perfectly acceptable to check in. You can approach them and say, “Hi there, my name is ____. How is your night going? Can I help you find anything?” Even if this is a blind individual you have met before, it is always good to indicate who you are so they know who is addressing them. It is also a good practice to address someone by their name (if you know it or if your event uses nametags) so there is no confusion. If they ask you where something is, you can describe it and offer to guide them there, in which case they may reach for your arm to walk together. The most important thing is to never grab someone or touch them without their consent. When you exit a conversation, be sure to let the individual know you are walking away by excusing yourself verbally. There is no need to speak louder or more slowly. The same is true for Deaf people.
Regardless of whether or not someone is blind, always ask before petting anyone’s animal. If they are a guide dog or are wearing a service vest, you should assume it is not appropriate to pet them. There are many different types of service animals, each with a job to do, so it is important to not distract them from their work.
Captioning and Interpreting
If you use any videos, include captions so that Deaf and hard-of-hearing can access the information. Captions can be especially valuable for hearing and Deaf attendees alike, if the video is playing in a noisy atmosphere. There are also services that provide real-time captioning for live events. Sign language interpreting is another service that may be needed. Research sign language and captioning providers that may be in your area. If this resource is available to you, give participants the option to request these services prior to the event so that you can offer these accessibility accommodations. When it comes to sign language interpreting, it is important to book the services of professional interpreters. However, if you are looking for a free way to make communication easier for Deaf attendees, check to see if there are any sign language or interpreting programs at schools near you. While students cannot serve as official interpreters, they can certainly be engaged as event volunteers. It creates a great opportunity for sign language learners to practice their skills and help answer questions.
Supplement the Sound
While sound can be a great resource for many, think about the ways in which sound clips can be supplemented with other multi-sensory tools. For example, if you have people listen to gravitational waves, you can demonstrate the phenomenon by having two volunteers orbit each. For extra flare, give them each a long ribbon to hold on to, representing the waves. They get closer and closer, finally “colliding” (i.e. high-fiving, grasping hands, bumping shoulders, etc.), at which point they can drop a rock in a tray of water to simulate the ripple effect. Another tactile way to discuss gravity and space time is a gravity-well demonstration, which uses a stretchy fabric (representing space time) that is secured around a ring (ideally at least 1 meter in diameter). Balls can be spun around the loop and then settle in the middle. This allows people to feel the dip in the space time fabric and witness the way in which space time curvature accounts for the gravitational attraction between objects. This hands-on description has a valuable tactile component that includes blind, Deaf, and Deaf-blind participants alike.
Avoid the term “hearing impaired.” The Deaf community largely regards this as an offensive term. Instead, use “hard-of-hearing.” In English, you may see Deaf written with a capital “D.” This “Big D Deaf” refers to Deaf culture and acknowledges the importance of Deaf identify, whereas “little d deaf” refers only to the concept of having no hearing. Defer to the spelling that an individual uses to describe themselves.
Hearing people sometimes think that they should change their speech patterns when talking with Deaf people. You should speak with your regular volume, pace, and enunciation. If there is an interpreter present, do not wait for them to finish signing or ask them if you are speaking too fast. If they are having trouble with your pacing, it is their responsibility to let you know.
Address the individual, not the interpreter. Similarly, if a person with a disability has some type of assistant, do not address the assistant or speak about the person in third person. Talk to them directly just as you would with anyone else.
Avoid speaking with your back to a Deaf person because some people may rely on lip reading. For example, if you turn to write something on a board, do not explain what you are writing while facing away from the audience.
It is important to be honest when you do not understand something. This is true regardless of with whom you are communicating. Encourage learners to reciprocate this honesty and to ask for clarification when needed.
When speaking to a group, use a microphone whenever possible. You may think your voice can be heard, but for hard-of-hearing people in the room the microphone can be an essential tool.
Some Autistic people and those with other neurological conditions may experience sensory processing difficulties. For example, they may become overwhelmed by loud, noisy spaces. We recommend designating a quiet space for people to go to recharge their social batteries, or to just relax in a calming environment. While this accommodation can be especially helpful for people on the autism spectrum, it is a courtesy that can benefit all.
As mentioned above, some individuals are more sensitive to sound. Offer noise-cancelling headphones to planetarium and science center guests. People can also be more sensitive to darkness. Consider offering a daily or weekly “Sensory Friendly” planetarium show that is less dark and free of loud noises.
Capitalize on Special Interests
As described by the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), some Autistic individuals experience “deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects. ‘Narrow but deep,’ these ‘special interests’ could be anything from mathematics to ballet, from doorknobs to physics, and from politics to bits of shiny paper” (ASAN). If someone exhibits a special interest, think of ways that this can connect to astronomy and to the content you are teaching. For example, if someone is passionate about dinosaurs, use the dinosaurs’ extinction to engage in a discussion on meteor impacts and asteroids, which can serve as a bridge to the astronomy topics in your outreach activity. It is also important to keep in mind that this time belongs to the learners. If the design of your event allows it, do not be afraid to let your learners’ questions steer the conversation. At the end of the day, outreach is about engaging and empowering people through astronomy, so we aim to do everything in our power to foster people’s excitement and interest in the subject. Sometimes this means coming up with creative ways to connect seemingly unrelated questions with the activity’s content.
Stick to a Schedule
For some Autistic people, a set schedule can be very important. Keep in mind that if you are doing an outreach activity during the school day, you will inherently be disrupting the regular daily routine to which the students are accustomed. For some students, this has the potential to cause distress. Be sure to plan with the teachers well in advance and adhere to your arranged schedule so that they can prepare the students for the change. Do your best to stay within your allotted time. Note that if you go over time and a student asks you when you are leaving, this is in no way being done out of rudeness but rather comes from a desire to understand the schedule adjustments.
Recognize that every person is different. Autism is a diverse spectrum and represents only one of the many different forms of neurodivergence. Research which organizations are supported by members of the Autistic community. Avoid Autism Speaks. Many Autistic people regard this as a hate group. The blue puzzle piece symbol and “Light it Up Blue” slogan were created by Autism Speaks and are largely rejected as gendered and problematic materials which promote an organization that in no way speaks for Autistic people. The symbol of the puzzle piece in general is also often rejected by Autistic people. Alternatively, turn to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for guidance and partnership ideas. This organization, represented by a rainbow heptagon, was created by Autistic people for Autistic people and is a trusted community resource. Research what schools and organizations may be in your area and reach out to local groups for advice on how to best meet the needs of people in your community.
Many Autistic self-advocates prefer identity-first language, in which someone is called an “Autistic person,” as opposed to person-first language, in which someone is called “a person with autism.” Within the Deaf and Autistic communities, in particular, there can be strong pride in one’s identity, and this ownership of identity-first language (i.e., Deaf person, Autistic person) is a reflection of that.
If you are using telescopes, make sure that the eyepiece is at a height someone in a wheelchair can access. Depending on your telescope model and the position of the object you are observing, this may not always be possible. However, investing in astronomy binoculars or tabletop telescopes are simple ways to ensure that no matter the night, there is always something observers in wheelchairs can access. For more information, please visit this article.
Pick a Smart Location
Astronomy outreach often happens outdoors. Keep in mind grass is not good for wheelchair access. If you wish to select a large grassy area such as a park for your astronomy event, be sure that your displays and activities are still accessible from the pavement by using the grass along sidewalks.
What if I want to use an observatory on the roof of an old building that has no elevator access?
On the nights that you have this observatory open to the public, supplement the experience with wheelchair-accessible stargazing opportunities. For example, instead of hosting your star party on the roof of the building, set up your portable telescopes outside on the ground, bringing the event’s central focus to a place that everyone can access.
A facility that is technically accessible, for example, a building with an elevator, does not guarantee that this space is inclusively designed. Is there only one elevator that’s all the way in the back of the building? Does the main entrance have steps only, requiring people using wheelchairs to separate from everyone else and use a secondary back entrance? Beyond, “Can a person with a disability get here,” consider, “Can a person with a disability get here without special assistance or inconvenient detours?
3. General Advice
When planning an event, think about the layout of your space in advance. It is essential that both your facility and your placement of materials enable the inclusion of people with physical disabilities. For example, consider the height of signs and tables used to display information and resources.
If you are giving a talk, it is essential to provide enough seating for your audience. Social events should also provide seating. For example, having only standing cocktail tables at a social gathering can exclude people with wheelchairs as well as those who have difficulty standing for long periods of time.
Know that many disabilities are invisible. Disabilities that are not visually recognized are no less legitimate and no less real. Furthermore, there are so many more disabilities than the categories referenced above. To learn how to successfully include someone, the best thing you can do is ask. Create opportunities for individuals to communicate their needs. As you go forward with your exciting outreach efforts, remember treating people with respect is the most important thing. Accessibility does not require money, perfection, or expertise; all it requires is a willingness to change your mindset, to start thinking about inclusion, and to learn from those who you aim to serve.
Astronomy Accessibility Resources:
Organizations supporting disability inclusion in astronomy:
• International Astronomical Union (IAU) Astronomy for Equity and Inclusion Working Group - An international group of collaborators that hosts a collection of astronomy accessibility resources
• IAU Inspiring Stars- An international IAU exhibit that showcases work addressing inclusion in astronomy
• GLAS Education- Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEM (GLAS) Education is a non-profit organization that promotes astronomy outreach through a number of programs, including accessibility work with blind and visually impaired students.
Organizations that support disability inclusion in other sciences:
• International Association for Diversity in Geoscience
• Sonification- Free, open-source programs for converting scientific data into sound
• NASA Sounds from Space- An auditory collection of radio emissions from astronomical bodies
• Radio Jove- An amateur radio telescope that can be used to listen to and record data from Jupiter and the Sun
• Harvard Arduinos- Arduinos that converts light into sound. Designed for telescope and solar eclipse observations.
• The Sky in Your Hands - Planetarium show that uses 3D-printed constellation domes
NOTE- the page this links to needs to be updated to indicate that the English version has been completed and made its U.S. premiere at COSI in 2017.
• The Sky at Your Fingertips - A website about astronomy for the blind with ready to print drawings for Braille printers
• Touch the Invisible Sky – A NASA Braille book, plus free Audio Podcasts by NASA Chandra X-ray Center
• A tactile version of the HST Carina Nebula – From a library of tactile space images provided by a program called Amazing Space
• Sunspot Activity by Peggy Walker – a low-cost activity in which students create a sunspot model out of paper
• Perkins School for the Blind eLearning – A comprehensive database of science lessons and demonstrations that are inclusive of blind learners. It includes activities in astronomy as well as a variety of other sciences.
• A Touch of the Universe – Tactile astronomy kits that allow learners to feel 3D printed moons, planets, and constellations.
• Tactile Universe – A team dedicated to creating 3D printed, publically available astronomy models
• NAOJ Tactile Models - 3D-printable astronomy models creating by a team at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
• You Can Do Astronomy LLC – Accessibility design and consulting company founded by Noreen Grice, who has authored numerous tactile astronomy books.
• NASA Braille Books – Tactile books for blind users created through NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).