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This audio event makes the April 8 eclipse an immersive hearing experience, too

A woman with shoulder-length blonde hair smiles as he holds a blue box -- a LightSound device
Beth Adams
Kirstyn "Kiki" Smith experiments with a LightSound device, which can be used by people with visual impairment to experience the eclipse.

The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in North America was Aug. 21, 2017. Here in Rochester, we only had a partial view of it.

"I remember it was a beautiful day," said Kirstyn "Kiki" Smith.

Her high school-aged kids were at the park with their friends, but she had a plan of her own. She sat on the front porch at her home near Park Avenue and listened carefully.

"I was waiting in awe to see if I would hear all the cars stop and the birds stop and the wind stop, and ... it was really disappointing," she remembered. "It just felt like any other day. I remember sitting there feeling so alone."

She felt alone because, unlike most people, she wasn't able to see the darkening sky.

Smith is blind. The loss of her sight began gradually when she was 8 years old and was diagnosed with uveitis, an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation inside the eyes.

On her porch that day, Smith tried to capture the excitement around the eclipse by listening to a live broadcast from the Tennessee School for the Blind, which was in the path of totality. But that made her feel even worse.

"I basically felt like I was having a temper tantrum on my porch," she said. "My face was hot. My jaw was tight. I wanted to throw something because ... I was alone. Everybody else was having this cool experience, and I'm outside on the margins."

Even though she felt ashamed of her self-pity, that experience almost seven years ago seems to have served a purpose.

The reminder of what that was like inspired Smith to help organize an event for people with blindness and other disabilities when Rochester has it's turn in the path of totality during a total solar eclipse on April 8.

"There are going to be experiences all over," she said, "but we're hoping to draw people who might have thought, 'This has nothing to do with me.' "

"A Total Eclipse of the Park" will take place at Genesee Valley Park from 1 to 6 p.m. April 8, with an emphasis on inclusivity.

It will be hosted by the Southeast Area Coalition, for which Smith works, and a number of community partners. The accessible party will include activities like audio darts, beep baseball, and tactile map building.

And of course, everyone will be there to experience the eclipse together.

Outside the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Kirstyn "Kiki" Smith reads a tactile map of the path of the last several solar eclipses, and the 2024 eclipse for which Rochester will be in the path of totality.
Beth Adams/WXXI News
Outside the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Kirstyn "Kiki" Smith reads a tactile map of the path of the last several solar eclipses, and the 2024 eclipse for which Rochester will be in the path of totality.

One way they'll be able to do that is with the help of a LightSounddevice, a sonification tool developed by Harvard University which allows people with visual impairments to "hear" the eclipse. The handheld device emits an increasingly lower frequency the darker it gets.

Smith had a chance to try one out last summer at the Rochester Museum & Science Center. Dan Schneiderman, RMSC's eclipse partnerships coordinator, demonstrated by slowly placing his thumb over the device's light detector.

"I like that I'll be able to hear this," Smith said, after hearing the tone rise and fall. "I'm curious about how my attention's going to be, processing that sound as well as the sounds of nature and the quiet I'm hoping to experience."

There will be at least five LightSound devices on hand at the Genesee Valley Park event. The Rochester Museum & Science Center also will have one of the devices available on the day of the eclipse.

Smith joked that if a classic western New York cloud cover ruined Rochester's moment in the path of totality, everyone else would understand what it's like to not see the eclipse. But she hopes that doesn't happen.

Either way, she won't be alone this time.

"We, as all these little ants on this planet, are trying to have this amazing, meaningful experience that we'll remember and tell our great-grandchildren about," she said with a smile.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.