The National Federation of the Blind
of Connecticut
Woman's Mission Helps Sight-Impaired 'See' The Universe
Reprinted from the Plainville Citizen, March 19, 2010

Author Noreen Grice doesn't just help sight-impaired children see. She helps them touch the stars.

Known worldwide for her innovations in making astronomy accessible to the blind, the New Britain resident makes her way to the Plainville Library once a month to meet with fellow National Federation of the Blind members. She's also donated five of her Braille books and two projects to the library in order to continually serve a population that captured her heart 26 years ago.

When working as a planetarium presenter at the Boston Museum of Science in 1984, Grice spoke with a disgruntled group of blind children who couldn't enjoy the show. "They said 'the show stunk,' because there was no way to see anything," Grice said. "It bothered me so much that I decided I just had to do something about it." And the rest is history.

Grice soon learned that the pricey cost of Braille books made Braille astronomy books extremely rare. Still attending Boston University at the time, Grice shocked her professors by changing her senior project to solve that problem.

She and her professor were soon experimenting with Play-doh to create tactile images for blind readers that would become her first published book down the road. But that wasn't good enough for Grice. She still wanted to improve conditions in museums for the sight-impaired.

During the next few years, Grice worked against many challenges to eventually make the Boston Museum of Science accessible to the blind, handicapped and other disabled populations.

After obtaining a master's degree in astronomy from San Diego State University, Grice returned to Boston and asked if she could apply for a grant that would give her a Braille printer to help create inexpensive tactile pictures. She received the grant and was soon printing pictures that allowed the blind to see the wonder of space for the first time.
She then revisited her senior project and used her new printing methods to create "Touch the Stars," her first Braille astronomy book published by Boston Museum of Science. The book is now in its fourth edition and has been used as a textbook at a school for the blind.

She has since published four other Braille books including "Touch the Sun: A NASA Braille Book," which was her first book for NASA, and "Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy."

Grice also started a company called You Can Do Astronomy in 2004, focused on making astronomy and space science accessible to people with disabilities.
Becoming a household name in the sight-impaired community, Grice has been a speaker at National Federation of the Blind's workshops and many other conventions nationwide. She also works with NASA to create educational materials for the sight-impaired.

"Noreen doesn't see blind people as broken-sighted people, she looks at them as people that have capability and how do we give them accessibility to information presented visually, usually out of convenience, not necessity," said NFB Executive Director Marc Riccobono. "She believes in her work and it's that real belief that's in her heart and in her mind that makes her so effective."

Although Grice is dedicated to helping the sight-impaired see the beauty of space that she's adored since she was a child, Grice's determination doesn't stem from a friend or loved one being blind. Her motivation comes from also being misunderstood, she said.
"When I was little we lived in the public housing projects and I couldn't go over my friend's house because her parents made an assumption about me, about being poor," Grice said. "So I understood the feeling of hitting a barrier because other people were making an assumption."

She said some institutions have assumed that visually-challenged people are not interested in visiting a planetarium, which Grice said is not the case.
Grice said although there are an estimated 10 million people in North America with visual impairments, the majority of museums offer little or no accommodations, since most exhibits sit behind glass cases. Grice is working to help museums and education organizations revise their facilities through a combination of design and consulting to allow everyone to enjoy learning.

And so many already have, Grice said.

"Kids will come up and say somebody gave them 'Touch the Stars' and I'm going to be an astronaut now because I know I can do this," Grice said. "I talked to a college engineering student determined to be the first blind astronaut in space, just because he read my book. It's so rewarding to hear that."

Her work at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science also included introducing captioning devices to enable the hearing impaired to follow the show. Working her way up to operations coordinator of the planetarium, she recently left her position at the museum. She said she feels her work there came full circle from having no special aids to help visitors with certain impairments to learn and enjoy the museum, to opening a new world for many.

Grice said she'll have more time to hopefully impact more children by trying to incorporate Braille books into the general school sector. "For some reason I feel this kindredship with them (the blind), and now I'm working on my own and able to do so much more," Grice said. "It doesn't matter if its science or art, it's just important that they can 'see' it too."

To see Grice's work, visit www.youcandoastronomy.com.

 

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Updated January 31, 2011