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What's your sign?

James Williams on developments in making planetarium shows accessible to the deaf

The film Alien used the catch phrase "In space no one can hear you scream" to promote itself, and for once the make believe world of films got it right: space is a vacuum and sound will not travel through a vacuum.

A great way to learn about the stars and about the science of astronomy is to visit a planetarium show and look at the wonderful light show and listen to the synchronised sound track explaining the mysteries of the universe. But learning about the science of astronomy it is not as simple as this for everyone.

Imagine a planetarium show with no sound track, no explanation of what the configurations of the stars mean and how they relate to one another, or about the motion of the planets around the Sun. For the deaf or hard of hearing, this is a real problem, but one that has been solved for the first time in this country.

Astronomer Alex Lovell became aware of the problems of making planetarium shows accessible to the deaf when she visited some shows in the United States. She brought back the idea of using cleverly-lit signers and a show with a modified script, and the idea was realised at a meeting with Jane Dewey of the education and interpretation group at the National Maritime Museum, extending the existing programme of talks and lectures for deaf visitors.

In association with Shape, an organisation that promotes access to the arts for people with all kinds of disabilities, the National Maritime Museum and assisted by the professional language interpreters, a new show was developed specifically for deaf audiences. As Alex Lovell says, "It is not uncommon for deaf children to be part of a class attending a planetarium show. This means that the child has to be briefed both before and after the show in order to gain anything". This method relies on the child remembering what has been signed to them and they cannot really take a full part in the show.

But how do you sign in the dark? Theatres regularly give signed performances of plays with a signer who stands at the edge of the stage in a spotlight. In a planetarium, the whole show is carried out in darkness, the only light sources being the images of the stars and planets and perhaps some gas nebulae. To overcome this, the show was radically altered with some low-tech equipment: two angle-poise lamps with red light bulbs.

The red light was enough to allow people to see the signer and not spoil the atmosphere of a darkened room. The had to be carefully worked out to make sure that there were adequate breaks to allow the lights to be switched on and the signer to explain what was happening.

The interpreters also had to ensure that any complex astronomical terms were presented in a way that was accessible to deaf people who may not have come across them before. "There are very few astronomical terms that have signs, apart from the more obvious ones such as sun, moon, stars and telescope" says Alex Lovell "so, before the show, a vocabulary was agreed between the interpreter and the audience."

The fact that the interpreter was not an astronomer did cause some amusement during the question and answer session after the show: "At one point the interpreter could only say that the question was something to do with the head and horse riding. The question was referring to the Horsehead Nebula."

For many of the audience this was their first experience of having the night sky explained to them. Their delight at being able to both see and understand the night sky was evident: one young boy, who had received a telescope for Christmas, said, "It was difficult for me to get into astronomy because you need it explaining to you. This show was brilliant. I now know what I am looking at with my telescope and I am going to use it more."

For one girl who came from a hearing family this visit to a planetarium was much more enjoyable than her last one: "I came to the planetarium before, with my parents. They enjoyed the show, but I fell asleep because I couldn't understand what was going on. I loved this show. It was so interesting and it was something especially for me! I think I'm going to take up astronomy. "

Following the success of this show and, in keeping with the National Maritime Museum's policy of access for all, there are now plans to create a more permanent lighting device than the trusty angle- poise lamps and to develop curriculum based shows that can be interpreted for deaf classes. Scripts will be available for teachers of the deaf so that they can work on the vocabulary with their classes and practice the signs before hand. Alex Lovell feels that this is an exciting development: "We are now able to open up a tremendous resource for the teaching of astronomy to a previously denied group of people."

But the story doesn't end here. The next challenge is to produce planetarium shows for the visually impaired, extending the long-established project for touch talks run by Jane Dewey. "Visually impaired children and adults are often able to detect a strong light source," says Alex. "Plans are already being drawn up to produce a special show in the autumn that uses laser light to intensify the image of the constellations". It is hoped that the laser produced images this will allow visually impaired people an opportunity to marvel at the wonders of our universe.

More information on special shows and planetarium shows in general from: Jane Dewey, Interpretation Officer, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, SE10 9NF. Fax: 0181 312 6632

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