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Disabilities Beat: Tactile images help teach the eclipse, but finding them can be a challenge

Gail Vaughan, a vision teacher at Williamsville Central Schools, points to the edge of the Perkins Brailler. She uses the brailler to create braille learning materials for students who have vision disabilities. In the photo you see her finger pointing to the grey machine, which has braille on a page coming out of it. Her nails are painted with a black and white design.
Dallas Taylor
Gail Vaughan, a vision teacher at Williamsville Central Schools, shows how she uses a Perkins Brailler to create braille learning materials for students who have vision disabilities.

When you think of the eclipse, you may think of the visual experience you’ll see through the special glasses that allow you to look at the moon as it covers the sun. But the eclipse is much more than that. It’s also a sensory experience, one that everyone can enjoy, regardless of if you can visually see the eclipse.

However, so many of the resources developed for educators to teach about the eclipse are visual. For students who may be low vision or blind, learning about the eclipse has to include accessible materials, like tactile images. Last week, Reporter Holly Kirkpatrick visited Williamsville Central Schools to speak to Gail Vaughan, the district's teacher for students with vision disabilities and Mark Percy, the district’s planetarium director about the need for more accessible eclipse education materials and how they developed their curriculum.

Gail Vaughan, a vision teacher, sits on the left. She is wearing a black head covering that has an detailed beaded design, blue glasses and a black, blue and tan modest dress. Mark Percy, the planetarium director, sits on the left, has red hair and a beard, and is wearing a button down shirt. They both have microphones in front of them that say "WBFO NPR" on the microphone flag. They are in the planetarium and you can see rows of seats behind them.
Dallas Taylor
Gail Vaughan, a vision teacher, and Mark Percy, planetarium director for Williamsville Central School District sit across from WBFO's Holly Kirkpatrick for an interview at the planetarium.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: On Monday, April 8th, the moon and sun will cross paths, causing a solar eclipse. Some areas will only see the moon block some of the sun, but Western New York and Southern Ontario will see the moon fully block the sun, called a total solar eclipse. The earth won't get the light from the sun in the same way, and nature will sound and look different while the moon blocks the sun.

Everyone is talking about what the eclipse will look like. But the eclipse will also be a sensory experience that people can feel and hear. Everyone can enjoy the eclipse. However, information about the eclipse isn't always made with people who are blind or have vision disabilities in mind. For teachers, this means when they teach about the eclipse, they need materials students can feel and touch so students can have the same experience as non-disabled students learning about the eclipse.

Reporter Holly Kirkpatrick went to Williamsville Central Schools, which has a planetarium. She spoke with Gail Vaughan, the district's teacher for students with vision disabilities, and Mark Percy, the district’s planetarium director, about how they are teaching students with disabilities about the eclipse. Gail explains how she makes tactile images of the eclipse that people can touch and feel. Both Gail and Mark explain though that not enough of these materials exist and they can be hard to find, so they had to make some of their own.


The LightSound Project, which distributes sonification devices that convert the eclipse's light to sound for people who have vision disabilities, has a map of locations that have the device:

The Exporatorium will have a live-stream sonification of the eclipse on their Total Eclipse App. This is a helpful resource if you have a vision disability but want to stay home or cannot get to a location with a LightSound or other sonification device.

The Self Advocacy Resource and Technical Assistance Center offers a plain language resource explaining the eclipse, how to view it and what glasses to wear at selfadvocacyinfo.org.

WBFO's Disabilities Desk has covered and continues to cover different ways people with disabilities can equitably enjoy the eclipse. To see more of our stories, click here,andto read an article with advice about eclipse viewing with different disabilities, click here.


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I am Emyle Watkins, and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat.

This week, everyone is talking about watching the eclipse, but did you know that tactile eclipse images could allow you to feel the eclipse with your hands?

For students with vision disabilities, these materials are important for getting an equitable educational experience.

Last week, my colleague, Holly Kirkpatrick, spoke with educators Gail Vaughn and Mark Percy at Williamsville Central Schools to learn about the need for more materials like this. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Can you start by just telling me a little bit about what you both do here at Williamsville Schools?

Mark Percy: I'm the planetarium director for the school district, which means I work with students of all ages, when they're learning about astronomy. The teachers bring them here to our district planetarium, and I'm the guest teacher for the day. I'm able to use this really amazing facility to simulate all kinds of sky phenomena without having to worry about clear skies or the fact that it's even still daytime.

Gail Vaughn: I'm a teacher of the visually impaired. I cover all of the district's 13 schools. The children are integrated into their classroom. My job is to make sure that they're included, that they have the materials that they needed, and that their IEP is followed.

Holly Kirkpatrick: What is an IEP?

Gail Vaughn: It's an individual education plan. Every student who has a disability has one. It gives background about the student, the student's needs, accommodations, supplies, materials that they require.

Holly Kirkpatrick: How long did you spend planning your lessons on the eclipse, and where did you start in terms of finding resources that will be accessible to students with disabilities?

Gail Vaughn: I started about a month ago. I asked teachers for materials ahead of time to include them. If I have to do a tactile image, it takes a while to do that. I could spend 30 minutes on one worksheet, so I have to prepare. Not every teacher is using the same materials, so I have to find out. I teach children from grade K all the way up to age 21.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Were you getting resources that already existed and adapting them or getting brand new resources?

Gail Vaughn: Both. I've gotten the district packets and things like that. There was things put on our website for each grade level. I looked and reviewed them to make sure that the children were able to do them, also creating my own materials for my own instruction.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Great. And Mark, you also teach. How did you prepare for this upcoming amazing event?

Mark Percy: As we've gotten closer to the event, I've experienced two total eclipses and been able to refine my lessons with my personal experience. Another thing that I've been in contact with is some colleagues in the planetarium world who have worked very hard to develop materials for blind and visually impaired students. The planetarium is a very visual environment, so they recognize the need, and they've worked with NASA to develop these resources that students can touch and experience, things like, "What does it mean to see constellations at night? What does it mean to see the moon go through different phases? How did the planets of the solar system compare?" And before the 2017 total eclipse, which went across the United States, a number of resources were developed specifically to teach students about eclipses so that our blind and visually impaired students could be included.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Can you both tell me a little bit about what they are exactly? So you said there was a book. There's those tactile images. Can you give us another idea of what they're like?

Gail Vaughn: They are diagrams of the different phases of the sun, the gases, and things like that. Visually, some children can see the colors and things like that. Some cannot. So there's different tactual markings on them for different tactual things. So when you're instructing, you instruct them hand over hand initially so that they can feel while you're explaining what you're explaining, like the gases or red spots or anything like that.

Holly Kirkpatrick: So that means you'd guide somebody's hand, at first.

Gail Vaughn: Initially, especially for the younger children.

Holly Kirkpatrick: I've read that they try to vary the textures, specifically with the Eclipse tactile images.

Gail Vaughn: There is. The tactile images are on thermoform, which is one of the heaviest, most standard things. There's different textures, but there's also different colors for them too. So they can identify both ways.

Mark Percy: So for example, the tactile images that we've purchased and put together, one of them shows magnetic field lines, which actually nobody can see. They're invisible, but you can feel the magnetic field lines coming out of the Sun's North Pole, looping around into its South Pole, as well as some knots in the Sun's magnetic field, which are areas where we might see sunspots. Or if one of these knots breaks open, it might cause a solar flare, which flings plasma out into space. So all of these are hot topics, and it is nice to have these resources so that as we're discussing these, that the blind and visually impaired students can understand all of what we're teaching about.

Holly Kirkpatrick: What about anybody else that might not be from this school district? Any advice for parents of children with vision disabilities there?

Gail Vaughn: I would say that there are local resources for the blind. Those areas, they can provide materials. They can put you in contact with the commissions of the blind in those areas, who will support those services.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Do you think that there are enough resources for people with vision disabilities for events like this that currently exist?

Gail Vaughn: They are not really available. I did call the New York State Resource [Center] for the Blind.They did not have very much. So I've been downloading books. I've been creating my own materials and things like that, using screen readers and other devices.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Is there a way that you are able to share what you have made so others can make use of them?

Gail Vaughn: Sure. There are other vision teachers in the area that we collaborate with. They work closely as I do with NYSSB [New York State School for the Blind]. That's the resource center for the entire state. There's a lot of networking with vision teachers. There's very few of us. Like, in this district, there's only me. There are only a few districts that have their own vision teachers.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Mark, I guess that would help you with your teaching as well, if there were more resources already made.

Mark Percy: Yeah. It's unfortunate because, while the resources have been developed, the deployment of them is still pretty limited. I happened to know one of the professors at Edinburgh State University in Pennsylvania who was instrumental in developing them, and I had to speak to him directly to get my hands on these resources. So it would be nice if they were easy to obtain through a website that was publicly available, but unfortunately, the supplies are so limited that they're just not available through those kinds of methods.

Holly Kirkpatrick: Thank you, Mark and Gail, very much for joining me today. Thank you so much for your time.

Mark Percy: Thank you.

Gail Vaughn: Thank you.

Emyle Watkins: To listen to the Disabilities Beat segment on demand, view a transcript, plain language description, and learn more about eclipse accessibility, visit our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins. Thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.