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How local radio can help make the eclipse accessible to people with disabilities

A woman with short white hair sits across from a man with short grey hair wearing glasses at a table with microphones and newspapers. In the background is a window to a producer booth where a man with short black hair, facial hair and glasses sits at a computer with a microphone.
Courtesy Michael Benzin
Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service
Ann Faltyn and Al Rasp prepare to read the morning paper ‘live’ on-air at the direction of Program Manager Nick Aldrich in the Control Room.

The total solar eclipse Western New York and Southern Ontario is about to experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it's one everyone should have the chance to enjoy. Many local organizations have been finding ways to make the eclipse accessible to people with disabilities. But one unique multifaceted approach is led by a local volunteer-driven free radio service for people with vision and print disabilties.

The Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS) will be airing a special two hour broadcast during the eclipse, which can be listened to on their website at NFRadioReading.org or using the free radios the service distributes.The broadcast will feature interviews with experts on the eclipse, and in particular, experts who focus on resources and best practices for watching the eclipse if you have a vision or print disability. NFRRS is also taking part in research on the eclipse, working with a national project streaming the sound of the eclipse using a special device and distributing tactile eclipse materials to viewing parties.

Knowing what information is important and how to make it accessible to people with vision and print disabilities is something NFRRS is specifically poised to do. They exist to convert print content, like local newspapers and books, into audio content that includes descriptions of photos and readings of long texts. They also deliver free radios that carry the signal they broadcast over, making sure anyone who wants to listen, can, even if they don't have access to an internet-connected device.

WBFO's Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins spoke with Michael Benzin from NFRRS about how they are using their local radio program to help make the eclipse accessible to people with disabilities.


Emyle Watkins: Michael, thanks for joining me on WBFO.

Michael Benzin: Thank you very much Emyle.

Emyle Watkins: To kick things off, tell me a little bit about Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service and what you do there.

Michael Benzin: Well, we're about 37 years old. And in a nutshell, our job is to read for people who can't. The longer version would be we read newspapers, magazines, books, and other publications, on air and online to people who are blind or have a print disability.

Emyle Watkins: And I know the Radio Reading Service is really familiar with creating those broadcasts that are accessible to people who have vision or print disabilities, what are some of the things you do to make your broadcast meet the needs of those listeners?

Michael Benzin: Well, considering our listeners are blind or have a print disability, we've become very good at describing images, or describing publications. So it's not just reading what you see, per se, it's talking about how the article might be on the page and what's in the pictures that go with the article. So, we use that to kind of extend our expertise to our blind community.

Emyle Watkins: So kind of giving people the full context of what's being distributed in print?

Michael Benzin: Absolutely.

Emyle Watkins: And I know on eclipse day, you're planning a two hour special broadcast. Tell me a little bit about what you've got planned.

Michael Benzin: Well, for the last two weeks, we've been interviewing local and national experts about the eclipse but not just about the eclipse in general, about how the eclipse can be experienced by people who are blind, or have a visual impairment. So we've talked with people from NASA, they've produced a blind eclipse map that has Braille features and topographical features. So people can feel like the track of the eclipse across the United States, they can feel how the different phases the eclipse might feel.

Michael Benzin: We've talked with a couple providers of apps that folks can download online. One is the Eclipse Soundscape app, which is really cool. It has a rumble map built in. So, it goes through different phases of the eclipse. And as you trace your finger across the screen, and you reach the edges, or the moon touches the sun and stuff like that, it makes an audible noise and vibrates on your your smartphone. And then the Total Solar Eclipse project is another app that folks can download. And it has a countdown, and they're actually going to be broadcasting live during the eclipse. But they're coming out of Texas, so there'll be about 45 minutes ahead of us. But one of the things they're doing is taking the data that's provided by the sun, and translating that into music, and they're gonna have a small orchestra playing music during the eclipse. So a lot of cool stuff going on.

Michael Benzin: We've talked with Holly Schreiber at The Buffalo Museum of Science, of course. We've talked with folks in Rochester, because that's one of our service areas. There's a big viewing party that's being organized by some accessible organizations. We've talked with Dr. Andrew Reynolds from UB [University at Buffalo], about safe viewing for the eclipse. People think that just because you're blind, your eyes are safe, and you can you know, point your face at the sun. That's not necessarily true, you could still you know, burn and cause some damage. So, he talked about how it's important for even people who are blind to be wearing this special glasses. All kinds of great things.

Emyle Watkins: You mentioned a viewing party, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Michael Benzin: It's organized by the South East Area Coalition, and with Rochester Accessible Adventures, and a company called AIRA. And they're a manufacturer of devices for people with visual impairments. And they're just putting together a party in the Rochester area. I don't have the details at my fingertips. But obviously it'll be during the during the eclipse.

Emyle Watkins: Were there any other aspects of these interviews that really stood out to you or surprised you or that you kind of want to highlight to get people excited to listen in?

Michael Benzin: I think it's cool that all these organizations and these are very bright people, these are astrophysicists and astronomers and all kinds of scientists, and they all have an awareness of the challenges that people who are blind might have. So they've all kind of feathered their research and feathered their projects and their programs towards making sure that people who are blind can experience the eclipse in the same way that people who aren't. And I thought that was pretty cool.

Emyle Watkins: I know that's something that has surprised me as I've covered eclipse accessibility is that a lot of these things that make the eclipse accessible, aren't really that hard to orchestrate. And I think a lot of times with disability, people think that creating accessible resources or making things accessible is is very complicated or something you need to be an expert in. Do you feel like making the eclipse accessible is a lot simpler than it may seem?

Michael Benzin: I think it is. I mean it is, you know, it's gonna be a two and a half hour event. So from when the moon first touches the sun to when it leaves the sun, it's gonna take a long time. And that, in itself, is simple to describe. And I think people who are blind, you know, there's different levels of blindness, some people can still see some shapes and shadows. You know, they're going to feel the eclipse as it crosses their face, they're going to feel the change in temperatures, they might see some of the shadows and some of the darkness. So, there are a lot of different things that people can experience.

Emyle Watkins: I know that the Radio Reading Service is also helping distribute some resources for the eclipse, one of them I noticed was the Getting a Feel for Eclipses book from NASA. What is that book for people who aren't familiar? And how are you helping distribute it?

Michael Benzin: Well, it's an oversized coffee table book, basically. It's spiral bound, it's probably each page is maybe two feet wide by a foot and a half high. And it's a heavy stock paper, and you open up to the middle and the facing pages have different graphical elements, they've got the, the different phases to the eclipse, they've got proportional views of the sun and the moon and the earth. So you can kind of see how the moon blocking the sign would only put an eclipse on part of the earth. They've got the different phases. They've got, excuse me, they've got a topographical map of the United States, with the path of the eclipse, as its starts in Texas and goes up through Vermont, traced out. Plus the path of two former eclipses. I guess there was one in 2017 and there was another one over on the western coast. So they show those as well, it's pretty cool that the folks with NASA who you think know everything about space, are actually paying attention to some of the things down here on earth.

Emyle Watkins: And how are you helping share that book with the community? I read in the press release that, you know, community groups, organizations [who] need it, you have a couple copies to share?

Michael Benzin: We got 10 copies. So we're gonna be distributing those to some of the viewing parties that are around town. And they're popping up all the time. But we're gonna give one to Buff State, they've got a big viewing party, there's one out in Knox Farms in East Aurora, the Buffalo Zoo, the ballpark is having a viewing party. So we're going to distribute those, along with a poster that has QR codes and the websites for those two free apps. So people can, they can pull it up the poster and then folks that are there can can shoot the QR code and load those apps on their device if they haven't already.

Emyle Watkins: I'm wondering are resources like this also important, because they help people who maybe don't have these disabilities learn about some of the ways that people with disabilities do learn or receive information?

Michael Benzin: I think it does. I think it helps remove some of the stigma that comes, may come, with seeing somebody who is blind. Might help people feel more comfortable interacting with somebody who's blind, they don't necessarily know what to say, or how to act. So it might kind of alleviate that a little bit.

Emyle Watkins: And I know you're also working with a few organizations to help study the eclipse, right?

Michael Benzin: Yeah, we're working with a project that the Eclipse Soundscape organization has put together. And that's a collaboration between I think, Harvard and the Smithsonian and the University of Arizona. Where we're going to hang a recording device outside of our building. And we're gonna hang it up two days before the eclipse and take it down two days after the eclipse. And it's we're gonna record the sounds of nature 24/7 nonstop for those five days. And they've got I think, 1000 sites around the country, that are also doing the same thing. And there's a lot of talk about the sounds of an eclipse, you know, the bird stop chirping, the crickets start making noise. But there's really no scientific evidence that really points to it in an really researched thought out way. So we're going to aggregate all those sounds, and then see exactly what is happening. And they've got locations that are in urban centers, they got locations in rural areas, in suburbia. So they're gonna have a really good map of what an eclipse sounds like.

Emyle Watkins: And I believe the other organization you're working with is the LightSound Project?

Michael Benzin: That's right, they've created a device. And that was another partnership between Harvard and the Smithsonian, that you point at the sun. And as it captures the sun's light intensity. And as the moon crosses in front of the sun, the light intensity diminishes, and the device emits a sound. And when it's at full brightness, it's a very bright high sound. And as it, as the moon starts to block the sun the sound gets lower and lower and lower. And then during the total eclipse, it's a very low clarinet-ish kind of sound. And then coming out the other side, it starts to get bright again. We're going to be on a Zoom session with I think 10 other sites across the country, following the eclipse as it crosses the nation. And each site, when the eclipse is over head that site, they're going to be playing that site's LightSound Project as well as displaying what the eclipse might look like in that neighborhood.

Emyle Watkins: That's very cool. And will people be able to listen to that at all on your broadcast or on your website?

Michael Benzin: We won't be able to broadcast it live, but we will record it and put it together in something and play it back at a later date, and probably put it also up on our website.

Emyle Watkins: That's great to hear. And, you know, I'm wondering, from everything you've learned, do you have any advice for people with disabilities regarding eclipse day or experiencing the eclipse?

Michael Benzin: I think just get outside, hopefully, it's gonna be a nice sunny day. Experience it as you are able, there's lots of resources out there that can kind of make that experience better. But just being outside and you know, being with family, or friends or colleagues or associates, and just enjoying the experience, it's not going to come back here for a long time. So however you can handle it, I think that just being out there and doing it is the best thing you can do.

Emyle Watkins: And I imagine for people who are maybe homebound or in a nursing home and maybe can't get outside, your broadcast is a way that they can still participate in the eclipse?

Michael Benzin: Yeah, there'll be a listen to all our interviews with with all these very smart people who I promise are now using a lot of 50 cent words. So it's not gonna be boring. And it's a great way, just kind of, you know, get some more education behind what's happening.

Emyle Watkins: What are some ways that people can listen, and if you can also, I'd love to have you talk about how you distribute the free radios.

Michael Benzin: Well, folks that are blind, we broadcast over a subcarrier of WNED 94.5. But you have to have a special radio for that, that we provide for free to all of our listeners, they can call us at 716-821-5555. And we'd be happy to drop one off. They can also access online, we're available to any internet connected device. Through our website, they can click on our live stream, or they can download an app and listen to us on their cell phone or tablet. We have our more popular programs like the daily paper and those kinds of publications are also available on podcast, Spotify, or Google or iTunes or whatever their favorite podcast player is. So there's lots of ways to access our content.

Emyle Watkins: And I'm wondering what would you say to families or friends of people with disabilities as far as how they could be an ally or maybe helped make the eclipse experience accessible to their loved ones?

Michael Benzin: Just reach out to them, connect with them, engage with them, see what they're doing and include them and in your own activities. Just kind of reach out and stay connected with them.

Emyle Watkins: Are there any ways you think eclipse resources could be improved for people with disabilities?

Michael Benzin: I think there's a lot going on already. And we seem to be learning something new every day. I think you know that after this whole experience all these organizations will have learned something and future events, whether it's an eclipse or something other, other nature thing that's exciting. I think people have learned from this experience.

Emyle Watkins: That's great. Well, thank you so much, Michael, for taking the time to chat with me about this.

Michael Benzin: Absolutely. Thank you Emyle.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.