Ways People Who Are Visually Impaired Can View the Solar Eclipse

It has been almost 100 years since a total solar eclipse has happened coast to coast in the United States. Typically, solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth about once every year and a half, but on Monday, August 21, everyone in the US will be able to see this momentous event.

Several drawings by students illustrating solar eclipse glasses
Image courtesy of NASA’s Decorate Eclipse Glasses

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon blocks the disk of the sun and, as a result, the day will darken. Lasting for only a few minutes, it is an incredible sight to see but very unsafe to do so because of the radiation that is released. Watching a solar eclipse has been known to cause permanent damage to the eye’s retina. Staring directly at the eclipse or viewing it through an optical aid like binoculars, a telescope, or optical camera viewfinder is harmful, so people wear special sunglasses that have a solar filter for protection. Safe solar filters provide a view of the sun that is comfortably bright (like the full moon), in focus, and surrounded by a dark sky. Another way to safely view the solar eclipse is through indirect projection. According to NASA, this is done by projecting an image of the sun’s disk onto a white piece of paper or card using a pair of binoculars (with one of the lenses covered), a telescope, or another piece of cardboard with a small hole in it (about 1 mm diameter), often called a pinhole camera. The projected image of the sun can then be safely viewed. Caution must be taken to not look directly through the projector.

Word of Extreme Caution About Viewing the Eclipse

The National Eye Institute (NEI) has issued guidance about safely viewing the eclipse. “Never look directly at the sun or an eclipse! The sun’s rays can damage the retina and lead to permanent vision loss,” said Rachel Bishop, M.D., chief of the NEI Consult Service. “The retina is the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. A condition called solar retinopathy occurs when sunlight burns and potentially scars the retina. Symptoms of solar retinopathy include central graying and fuzziness of vision. A solar eclipse can be viewed safely by looking through special-purpose solar filters. These filters must meet an international standard indicated by ISO 12312-2 certification.”

The American Astronomical Society has issued warnings about solar glasses that are not safe and that are being sold as if they meet certification requirements. Please check their site for safe manufacturers.

Other Ways to Participate

If the two techniques above don’t work because of your vision loss, there are other ways to participate in this natural phenomena. Below, I have listed some different ways you can actively engage in our next historical eclipse. Check out these resources and get ready! Who knows when the next one will occur, it might be another 100 years or so.

  1. The Audio Description Project, an initiative of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) along with the Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind, the Tennessee School for the Blind, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, will host an audio description of the solar eclipse. At exactly 1:27 p.m. (CDT), the sun above Nashville, TN, will disappear from view. The event will be accessible to people who are blind or have low vision or anyone who wishes to experience a verbal version of the visual. Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. (CDT), Dr. Joel Snyder will host an event titled, "A Total Eclipse – Audio Described," on ACB Radio. Snyder, the director of ACB’s Audio Description Project, will be presenting.

    Here’s how to access the broadcast: Go to ACB Radio and select "Click Here to Play." Then be sure to select the link that opens the player that you use to listen to music or stream Internet radio stations. You can also listen on any telephone by dialing (605) 475-8130 and select option 4. If you are using an iOS device, such as an iPad or iPhone, install "ACB Link," open the app, select the radio tab, and then tap on the menu button. Select "live streams" and "ACB Radio Interactive" then select the play button, and the stream will launch.

  2. The Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a webinar titled, "Explore the Solar Eclipse with NASA," that you can listen to on demand. All you have to do is go to the Hadley website, register, and the webinar is available immediately. You will also get an email to a link to review at a later date.

  3. The Eclipse Soundscapes Project is another option for individuals who are blind and visually impaired to view the solar eclipse. The project, from NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium, will include audio description of the eclipse in real time, recordings of the changing environmental sounds, and an interactive "rumble map" app that will allow users to visualize the eclipse through touch.

    Unfortunately, the recordings will not be available until after the eclipse, but you can enjoy the eclipse with the Eclipse Soundscapes app. It will include a narration of the eclipse’s progression in real time using WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM). Eclipse Soundscapes app will geolocate the user and start the narration to align with the planetary movements as they occur. Additionally, the app has an interactive "rumble map," which uses a smartphone’s touch screen and vibrational feedback to demonstrate the physical qualities of an eclipse. Photos will be displayed of the eclipse at various stages. When you touch the image, the app reads the greyscale value of a pixel underneath your finger and vibrates the phone with a strength relative to the brightness of the area. As you move your fingers around the sun, the phone will vibrate more or less.

  4. For braille readers, NASA created a solar eclipse tactile guide. It is called "Getting a Feel for Eclipses." The book is designed to depict basic concepts about the interaction and alignment of the sun with the moon and Earth during a solar eclipse. This book will educate the sighted and blind on the science of eclipses by adding the sense of touch to their learning experience. For more information go to the NASA website

Share Your Thoughts on the Eclipse and Resources

Regardless of the way in which you decide to view the upcoming solar eclipse, it is good to know that there are options. So after reading this post, how will you view the solar eclipse? Do any of the above options peak your interest? Or do you have another way to view the eclipse that was not mentioned? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and let’s get ready to share in this historical and spectacular event.

More Information

View the Eclipse Safely

Read more about the eclipse app