Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How to enjoy the eclipse if you're blind? Some Vermonters will listen

Three rows of light sound devices. They are plastic squares boxes that comes in different colors.
Allyson Bieryla
The LightSound Project
An assortment of LightSound devices in various colors. A lab at Harvard University designed the technology in 2017.

This piece was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio, if you're able. We’ve also provided a written version.

Have you ever wondered about the sound of a solar eclipse?

If you attend one of the many events taking place in Vermont during the total solar eclipse on Monday — along with the "oohs" and "ahhs" from people witnessing the celestial event — you may also hear the shimmering sounds of a flute, a melancholy clarinet or even a low, somber oboe.

Those tones come from a piece of adaptive technology called LightSound. It's a small, plastic rectangular device that detects subtle changes in light during an eclipse and emits programmed instrument sounds.

LightSound was developed in 2017 by a team at Harvard University, so folks who are blind or have low vision can experience solar eclipses in a new way.

A fair-skinned person with short brown hair wears glasses and smiles.
Cathie Peller
Daniel Norris

Daniel Norris, the director of adult services at the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has a juvenile form of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease. For Norris and many others in Vermont’s blind and low-vision community, a device like LightSound can go a long way toward making the eclipse more accessible.

"This event is really opening eyes to a lot of people that events and experiences in life don't necessarily have to be one-dimensional in their approach," Norris said. "There's a lot of things that can be done to actually adapt, if you have a sensory impairment — so that you're just as involved and just as included in the things that are happening in our world." 

For another example of adaptive tech, Norris shared an 11-by-18-inch booklet called Getting A Feel for Eclipses produced in collaboration with NASA in the lead-up to next week's eclipse. With raised plastic images on its pages, it's a tactile representation of the moon and the umbra — or shadow — it will create moving across the country.

A large book made from hard white plastic with raised images depicts the path of totality across a map of the United States for the Great American Eclipse on April 8th.
Mary Williams Engisch
Vermont Public
Getting a Feel for Eclipses breaks down the trajectory of eclipses using raised pages and Braille

Norris sees the upcoming eclipse as a great opportunity to increase awareness of inclusivity — to be able to look through someone else’s eyes at a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Harvard astronomer Allyson Bieryla is part of the team that designed LightSound for the last total solar eclipse that swept the country in August 2017.

She says the devices have a MIDI component — which musicians might be familiar with — that allows developers to program instrument sounds.

"We've done it is we've mapped the brightest light to a flute sound, the mid-range kind of goes into a clarinet sound. And then the lowest range kind of goes into a low kind of clicking," Bieryla said.

More from Vermont Public: Access to signage, rapid test results not provided to people who are blind, visually impaired

But some users, like John Thomas, who is the director of development for the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, are tweaking the LightSound tones.


Thomas is an electronic musician and beefed up the tones coming from his LightSound by adding reverb and layering.

LightSound is free from the Harvard lab, and the plans to build it are open source.

Over the last few months, Bieryla says volunteers at several workshops built and shipped close to 900 devices to destinations all along the path of totality. Still, that didn’t quite meet demand for over 2,500 LightSound requests.

Norris said he's feeling that energy here in the Green Mountain State; people reached out to him after finding media coverage of LightSound.

“I will tell you that the LightSound device has created a buzz amongst the community of people who are blind or visually impaired in a way that I haven't seen before," Norris said.

That includes Alek Wolfe, who’s been blind since childhood. Since 2020, he’s produced an online radio program, called The Variety Show, from the basement of his parents’ home in Milton. And on eclipse day, he plans to spin lots of sun, moon and celestially-themed tunes.

A person wearing a tan tee-shirt and dark pants holds a record album and a photo, surrounded by radio broadcasting equipment.
Alek Wolfe
Alek Wolfe of Milton.

Wolfe also plans to take his whole radio set-up onto his folks’ back deck and broadcast the show from there. And he’ll help make the eclipse accessible to his radio audience, many of whom are also blind or visually impaired, by broadcasting the sounds of his LightSound device as we near totality.

"I think there's such a curiosity for not only just blind and visually impaired people, but people that are sighted, you know?" Wolfe said. "What is actually happening up there in the sky, right? And I think it's just such a fascinating thing."

You may also get a chance to try out the LightSound device for yourself. The Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired is hosting three eclipse-centered events Monday, with devices in hand.

Thomas from the association says the eclipse has the capacity to bring unlikely communities together — sighted or not.

When a partial eclipse passed over Brattleboro in the 1990s, Thomas recalled people streaming out of their stores to watch from the sidewalk. He was using a small piece of smoked glass to view the eclipse when two people — "very tattooed, very pierced" —approached him to ask if they could use it, too.

A person wearing glasses holds a light blue rectangular device with a picture of an eye up to his face.
John Thomas
John Thomas, Director of Development for the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, holds a LightSound device that detects changes in light and emits tones and sounds. He'll use it during the Great American Eclipse on April 8th.

“And I was like, 'Yeah, absolutely!' So I hand it to them. And as I'm handing it to them, these two older women were going by and kind of lingered... and they said, 'Can we use it after them?' And we were lined up; there were five of us. I thought 'If it weren't for the eclipse, none of us probably would be even talking,” Thomas said.

Of course, there’s a chance clouds are hanging over Vermont on upcoming eclipse day — a wet blanket on everyone’s experience.

If that’s the case, Norris from the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired says you might want to make sure there’s a LightSound device nearby.

You know, if it is cloudy, the most interesting thing that might happen is this. Because it will still react to the change in lighting, even if you can't see it," Norris said. "So if everybody's blinded by the event, because of the clouds, this might be the most interesting thing that's happening.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
Latest Stories