Roo Valley: Access for All

Posted September 11, 2020 by Angela Hatke

Cassandra Clement,  a Zoo Access for All Family Advisory Council (FAC) member and frequent Zoo visitor, was always on the lookout. A self-described “stalker” of quiet places to sit at the Zoo, she always took note of benches tucked away in more secluded areas or any nook or cove that would make a “good place to chill” with her son Troy, who has a genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. Those quiet moments give them a chance to recover from the bustling activity of the busier parts of the park. For many families with developmental disabilities, the Zoo can be both a place of refuge from the daily life of therapy appointments and the challenges of living with a disability as well as a source of anxiety. Visitors with sensory sensitivities may be overwhelmed with the sounds and smells of a zoo, and others may struggle to understand social expectations in public places.

In support of the Zoo’s mission to “inspire every visitor with wildlife every day”, the Cincinnati Zoo embarked on an initiative to become more accessible and inclusive for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. The establishment of the Zoo Access for All program in 2017 was funded by a four-year “Community Anchors” grant from the Institute of Museums & Library Services’ (IMLS).

The relationships and trust built between the Cincinnati Zoo and its community partners through the collaborative creation and implementation of the Zoo Access for All program were the keys to the successful development of a program responsive to the specific needs of the Cincinnati community. No one knows the neurodiverse challenges of a zoo visit better than our member families with developmental disabilities, so Dr. Jen Smith, program director of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) and the Cincinnati Zoo invited 20 families representing different disabilities, age groups, and socioeconomic status to serve as part of the Zoo Access for All Family Advisory Council (FAC).

Especially when it comes to opening new habitats, the FAC provides vital expertise and knowledge on how to better plan for these new areas and give pinch points to staff. Before the opening of Roo Valley on August 18, the FAC families were invited to a private event to experience the new habitats and provide vital feedback.

We have received important feedback on how to best prepare other families for this new experience. We rely on them to tell us what is working well and where potential problem areas could be. Advice like this helps the Cincinnati Zoo better train employees, prep and distribute social narratives, and make updates to signage when needed.

“They’re making fantastic changes,” Clement says. “How cool for them to be the leaders in Cincinnati for true accessibility. And it has been fun to be a part of the improvements.”


Available Social Narratives

Find more information on the Zoo Access for All program

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