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Disability is Diversity

By Tany Holzworth
min read

As members of Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities, we are familiar with the current lack of diverse representation in the field of conservation.

Many zoos and aquariums have taken great strides in helping guests with disabilities get the most out of their visits. At Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., we recognized a need to expand our vision of inclusion. In 2018, Woodland Park Zoo applied for and received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant to initiate a volunteer inclusion program which would bolster capacity to support volunteers with disabilities in participating meaningfully in conservation and gaining hard and soft skills to engage meaningfully with conservation.

Historically, people with disabilities have fewer opportunities to participate in volunteer service. Lack of opportunity perpetuates higher rates of unemployment, loneliness, and isolation in disabled communities. It also results in a scarcity of unique voices and contributions that would make our organizations accessible to all.

Community organizations like zoos and aquariums who utilize volunteers have the opportunity to provide equitable access to service opportunities where individuals with disabilities can gain skills and build community. The benefits to both the zoo and to our surrounding community are manifold.

Woodland Park Zoo volunteer Karen dispenses soap to a guest.

Including people with disabilities in roles at Woodland Park Zoo has resulted in shifts that improve accessibility and engagement for all guests. Shifting our mindset to consider accessibility for events and programs, and removing barriers to participation impact many communities, not just people with disabilities.

The Volunteer Inclusion Program launched in late 2018 with the hiring of a full-time staff member dedicated to inclusion efforts and the development of an Inclusion Advisory Council (IAC). The IAC is made up of community members representing long-standing disability organizations in the greater Seattle area.

To underscore the spirit of the disability rights movement, “nothing about us without us,” we also asked one of our existing volunteers who identified with a disability to join the IAC. It has been vital, in each step of the Volunteer Inclusion Program, to engage people with disabilities and work with them in identifying what changes should be made and where they envision themselves as part of our organization.

We held focus groups with disability communities to gain insights on why they may or may not be interested in volunteering at the Zoo. Through these focus groups we found that the primary concern was that individuals did not want to volunteer in a place they did not feel was accessible to them. While we had many accessibility resources available, they weren’t well known to the community, so the perception remained that the Zoo was not an accessible place for people with certain disabilities. With this in mind we made changes to our website, streamlined the processes for requesting accommodations, and created additional resources based upon community feedback.

One of the biggest barriers to participation is cultural. There is a persistent stigma around what people with disabilities can and can’t do, and a dogged narrative that people with disabilities are supposed to receive help, not deliver it.

A Woodland Park Zoo animal keeper and educator shows a little boy the beak of a hornbill

Fear and discomfort of interacting with people with disabilities are often borne from a simple lack of experience due to the segregated nature of our society. We wanted to spur an immediate shift in that culture within our organization. We began by accepting a small group of applicants with disabilities before even officially disassembling barriers in our volunteer program.

“We aren’t ready” or “we do not have the expertise to support you” are phrases that people with disabilities and their families are all too familiar with. These responses are a significant part of the socially constructed barrier to volunteer service for people with disabilities. One way to remove the barrier of people being unfamiliar with disability is by having people with disabilities around. We felt comfortable doing this knowing we had a dedicated staff member to help make accommodations and navigate any difficulties that may arise.     

By taking that first step of accepting individuals with disabilities into the volunteer program, we were able to better identify areas that lacked support and to begin making changes and building in new structures. Of course, by having people with disabilities in our program, they were able to lend their voices to the changes being made. Without insights from their experience, many of the changes we have made to the program would have been overlooked.

Bringing on people with disabilities made the work we were doing real and helped us to make cultural and tangible changes to our volunteer program. By its nature, inclusion begets additional inclusive policies and practices.

When the time came to recruit new volunteers for year two of the IMLS grant, interest from the disabled community had grown from four people with disabilities attending our information session in 2019 to 26 in 2020. Not all attendees submitted applications, but this huge increase in interest speaks volumes to the perception of Woodland Park Zoo as an accessible and inclusive place to volunteer and the need for more organizations to provide accommodations to make their volunteer programs accessible.

Woodland Park Zoo volunteer Joaquin assists guestsMaking your volunteer program more accessible for people with disabilities doesn’t require an IMLS grant. You can begin removing barriers to inclusion with the following steps:

1. Overhaul your accessibility webpage.

People aren’t interested in volunteering at a place that isn’t accessible to them to visit as a guest. Ensure that people with a variety of disabilities are able to access your webpage. Include all of the information they would need to be able to participate as a guest and link the volunteer page. It should be easy to find and easy to use. Check out ours as an example.

2. Add language to your volunteer and job postings to help people request any accommodations for the application and interview process they may need.

This simple change resulted in the successful addition of several volunteers who needed simple accommodations to access the application. For example, a volunteer with low vision who needed assistance inputting her answers.

Example: “Woodland Park Zoo is committed to providing access and reasonable accommodation in all of its services. If you need accommodation in the application or interview process, please contact our recruiting team at careers@zoo.org.”

3. Bring on passionate volunteers with disabilities.

You may think you and your staff need more training to be prepared to support volunteers with disabilities. Training is great, but without exposure to individuals with disabilities, people will always have discomfort and unease about what to do and how to act.

We had previously made decisions about volunteers with disabilities based upon our perception of the support they would need, without asking them about what supports they needed. Often those who need support can be accommodated by working with their own supports, like job coaches, who can be there to assist them. Adding a question about what support or accommodations applicants need on your application can be helpful in selecting candidates and understanding further barriers in your program.

We assessed how we select volunteers with our Inclusion Advisory Council. For the most part, our volunteers are not selected based upon their experience or knowledge of conservation. We are happy to have volunteers who are passionate about conservation, willing to learn, and excited to share the Zoo with others. People with disabilities often meet these criteria.

4. Be prepared to make some changes.

To accommodate people with disabilities in participatory roles, you may have to reassess some of the policies and procedures in place. Most accommodations will be easy to implement. You may also find there are several iterations of modifications before you find the right one, but that’s okay as long as you continue to make improvements. Your flexibility and willingness to let go of how things have always been done to set people up for success will make a huge difference and is likely to increase access for populations beyond just those with disabilities.

Tany Holzworth most recently administered Woodland Park Zoo’s award-winning Volunteer Inclusion Program and is currently employed by Microsoft where she works on accessibility programming.


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