This article is part of the “Building from Diversity” project.
Enrique Pérez Montero: A Living Oxymoron
Written by Emilio García, Head of the Communication and Scientific Culture Unit at the IAA-CSIC (Spain)
An oxymoron. A turn of phrase in which two contradictory concepts are used in a single expression. Cold fire, deafening silence, dark light or blind astronomer. Because how could one work in Astronomy without the ability to actually see the stars? How is it possible to do research in such a fundamentally visual science with a visual impairment? Enrique Pérez Montero is showing the world how.
As astronomer at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC, Spain), Enrique progressively lost his vision until he became totally blind due to a genetic degenerative disease. Since 2011, he has been affiliated with the National Organization of the Blind (ONCE in Spanish) and requires Rocco, his guide dog, to help him navigate his daily life. So, yes, the seemingly impossible is possible. Enrique is blind and an astronomer, or rather, Enrique is a blind astronomer. A living oxymoron, who is proving he is highly skilled and respected in his quest to help us better understand the Universe. And he’s just getting started.
Under the coordinated project “Star formation bursts in galaxies,” to which he has belonged since the defense of his PhD thesis at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in 2003, Enrique’s research has led him to publish more than 160 articles in high-impact journals, to supervise PhD and final master’s theses and to continue contributing scientifically at the highest level in the field of star formation and how it influences the environment of galaxies. His daily work and his participation in global conferences and meetings is breaking the stereotypes, proving, again, that people with a disability can contribute at the highest level. He has become a reference for other professionals with a seemingly limiting disability. Although, as Enrique, himself, reminds us: “We are all blind to 99.9% of the light that comes from the stars.”
Beyond his research, Enrique has expanded his influence through astronomy outreach and education. His project, “Astroaccesible,” is an initiative to bring astronomy and other sciences to the blind and visually impaired community in a more accessible way and to promote the adoption of inclusion criteria among other scientists, science communicators and teachers. He seems to have boundless energy in his charge: Countless talks and articles; workshops with tactile models to “touch” the firmament or walk through the Solar System; audio descriptions of astronomical objects; innovative uses of sonification; planetarium programs; inclusive visits; training and awareness courses; invitations to leading scientific communication conferences, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Add his continuous presence in the media and the publication of his recent book to the list of accomplishments, and one can see how Enrique has become a leader in the science communication community. And not only because he has taught us to adapt how we communicate with an audience with visual impairment, but because, with this, he has given us all a gift: the awareness and ability to transform our work into something that is more universal and inclusive, ensuring that we engage all the human senses in making science accessible and enjoyable for all. Not bad for an oxymoron.