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Meeting the Needs of All Guests

By Debbi Stone and Allison Price
min read

On the grounds of the Santa Barbara Zoo in Santa Barbara, Calif., a group of dads stood around talking NFL fantasy football drafts.  This conversation differed from countless similar chats that happen on Zoo grounds because, for some, it was the first night to themselves in a long time.

The event? Santa Barbara Zoo’s Autism Safari Night, a program that provides sensory-rich play and learning opportunities for children with disabilities while providing a “night off” for parents.  It is one of many efforts that Santa Barbara Zoo is making to be inclusive for all guests.  

“There is something special about seeing people who have all walked the same walk being represented and being seen,” said J.J. McLeod, education manager at the Zoo. “It means a lot to them. Some people are meeting their friends and neighbors at these events and didn't know they were in the same boat.”

Zoos and aquariums strive to be spaces where people can connect to nature, learn, and have fun.  But for some community members, finding a way to engage may be challenging. 

Many Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities have increased their inclusion efforts, creating specialized programming for particular audiences and adapting existing programs to be more inclusive.

With limited time and resources, organizations are considering which model is better. For many, using both strategies is the best way to meet everyone’s needs. 

“Guests that participate in our programs are diverse,” said Autumn Russell, director of education at the Akron Zoo in Akron, Ohio. “Not just in their abilities, but in how they want to participate in activities. The best model is to work with your audience.” 

Building a Custom Program

Developing specialized programming for particular audiences—whether children with autism or adults who are blind or have low vision—can be rewarding for both the facility and audience. 

At Santa Barbara Zoo’s Autism Safari Night, that benefit came from understanding that what parents of children with disabilities needed wasn’t a conservation lecture, a resource fair, or a beer crawl, but simply a night off.

So, the Zoo kept it simple.  While children played, the parents had dinner and drinks and walked around the Zoo.  The event was so popular that it sold out in a matter of hours.

In Lansing, Mich., Potter Park Zoo’s Falconers Program was a win-win for the Zoo and participants. The monthly program welcomes all ages with diverse needs to enjoy an educational experience with the whole family in a safe, welcoming, and sensory friendly environment. While families are grateful and often report that if not for the special accommodations, they wouldn’t have been likely to visit the Zoo, this program laid the groundwork for community partnerships.

By collaborating with agencies like the Mid Michigan Autism Association and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services—Michigan Rehabilitation Services, the Zoo got free professional development along with support for Zoo-wide initiatives like working on an updated ADA assessment and increasing employee diversity. 

Another benefit to developing specialized programming is the learning experience it provides to a facility’s staff. Staff can gain access to workshops and trainings from community partners and educators and event planners have the opportunity to see their space in a whole new light.

“Often times the specialized programming is where we are learning more about an audience than we know,” said Louise Bradshaw, Fred Saigh director of education at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo.  “Special programs are often requested, and we can take what we learn and apply it to other programs, understanding how we can tweak them.” 

Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., had a specialized effort became something they deployed more widely with their sensory-friendly app.  Lynn Walsh, accessibility and inclusion manager at the Aquarium, explained that the app was originally intended to be specific to an audience—people with autism and sensory processing disorders. They designed and marketed it heavily that way, and yet after launch they realized its potential as a universal product. 

“Now we think about it for many folks, including teachers, because it’s a really good resource,” said Walsh.   

At Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., specialized programs for audiences led to a larger evening event, DreamNight, which serves families while fostering a safe, welcoming environment.

young man in wheelchair interacting with scube diver at aquarium

“We wanted to ensure our efforts would be sustainable, and DreamNights enable us to engage hundreds of people who otherwise may not be able to experience the Aquarium during standard operating hours. The good work we were accomplishing with community partners built that strong foundation that led to something bigger,” said Jim Wharton, director of conservation engagement and learning at the Aquarium. He also acknowledged the importance of providing both specialized and inclusive opportunities. “We need both, and we understand that serving diverse audiences is a mission case as much as it is a social responsibility. To achieve our mission, engaging diverse audiences becomes essential.”

Including Everyone in Established Programming

No zoo or aquarium can offer robust programming to every specific audience, so it's critical that “everyday” programs be accessible. 

Inclusion is often a facility-wide effort and involves all departments, staff, and volunteers engaging with audiences outside of structured educational programs.  But education programs are where inclusion efforts were incubated, and summer camps offer a unique platform for engagement.  

“In a way our inclusion journey starts with our camp program,” said Bradshaw.  “It was very popular but had increasing numbers of kids showing up with autism, PTSD, and anxiety. Our staff were challenged with accommodating these needs.”

After identifying this challenge, the Saint Louis Zoo looked at welcoming these children to camp.  Today, the Zoo hires inclusion facilitators who serve as counselors to the kids and as resources and mentors to the camp staff.  The Zoo also employs one full time and one part time education inclusion specialist year-round.  

At Santa Barbara Zoo, camps are also a place to create inclusive programming.  McLeod said that all camp games and activities have ways to be modified, so that if one camper needs an activity to be done a certain way, that’s the way it’s done for everyone.  She said that this kind of attitude, as well as conversations with the community, has been critical for the Zoo’s inclusive reputation. 

“Parents don’t reach out to ask about inclusive camps because they’ve heard ‘no’ so many times, so they keep their kids in the places they know they can go,” said McLeod.  “So, we wanted it to be known that we are for everyone.”

The Family Nature Club at Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., is inclusive. This program is a series of nature-play events that take place on site in the Zoo’s nature play space and off site in community parks.

“We have many families of all abilities join us,” said Brevard Zoo’s Inclusion Coordinator, Lindsay Mathisen. “Our nature space at the Zoo offers a fun area to explore without some of the barriers of community parks. This allows families to experience nature at their own pace. We scope out our community parks to make sure they are accessible. If we need to, we have Mobi-mats that we can bring with us to make the terrain easier to access.”  

For Akron Zoo, becoming a Sensory Inclusive Zoo (via certification by KultureCity) was an opportunity to bring inclusion into the everyday visitor experience. That certification involves training for all staff, especially guest-facing employees, and ensures that the Zoo has resources for guests with sensory needs all the time.

“Anyone can have sensory needs,” said Elena Bell, Marketing and PR Manager.  “The staff learn to recognize sensory overload. We have sensory bags free of charge. These bags include noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, and sunglasses. We have areas in the park designated as quiet areas and headphone zones that tend to be noisy. A Guest Comfort Station is available for anyone who needs silence and/or privacy.”

McLeod also points out that being inclusive can be manifested on website and with what kinds of resources are shared with guests.  She is a parent of a child with disabilities, and she notes that when her family travels or visits other cultural institutions, they arrive having done research on what can make the visit successful.

Tips for getting started

Many zoos and aquariums have a balance of specialized and inclusive programming, ensuring a facility is welcoming to a range of visitors.  The most important thing to remember, Walsh said, is that what works for one person might not be what another person needs.  She urges zoo and aquarium professionals to develop relationships with the community and ask lots of questions when thinking of new programs or initiatives.  

Bradshaw notes the wealth of resources to be found in professional communities, whether throughout AZA or in your local area.  In St. Louis, the Missouri History Museum won an award from the American Alliance for Museums for their inclusion efforts, and the Zoo has been collaborating with them so that staff from both organizations learn.  

As AZA-accredited facilities continue to grow to meet the needs of audiences, it is important that they regularly consider how well they meet the needs of all their audiences.

Photo Credit: © Seattle Aquarium

Debbi Stone is the vice president of learning at The Florida Aquarium. 

Allison Price is the director, learning experiences at the Lincoln Park Zoo. 


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