The following is a guest article from writers Alyssa O’Connell, Shasta Bray, and Alix Gasser at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Access for All at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden


Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (CZBG) member and Zoo Access for All Family Advisory Council (FAC) member, Cassandra Clement was always on the lookout. A self-described “stalker” of quiet places to sit at the Zoo, 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”, CZBG 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). As the grant cycle reaches the end of year 3, Rhiannon Hoeweler, VP of Visitor Experience, Strategy & FUN!, and program founder at the Zoo reflects on what made the project a community success.

“We offer on-site resources like sensory bags, social narratives, and a calming room,” said Hoeweler. “But the most impactful components to this program are the connections we made from the beginning with local Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s (CCHMC) LEND Program, and the creation of a Family Advisory Council to guide the work.”

The relationships and trust built between CZBG and its community partners through the collaborative creation and implementation of the Zoo Access for All program were the key to the successful development of a program responsive to the specific needs of the Cincinnati community.

Only two city blocks from CZBG sits the #2 Children’s Hospital in the country where the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disabilities (LEND) program trains professionals to support the disability community in Cincinnati. LEND Program Director, Dr. Jen Smith, has collaborated with CZBG from the beginning to not only provide training to Zoo employees on accessibility and inclusion for visitors with disabilities but also how to really focus and tackle the priorities that would make the largest difference to the greatest number of people.

Involving a local leader in developmental disabilities in the Zoo Access for All program helps families trust in the changes being made. In fact, Dr. Smith has been sharing her passion and expertise with many other cultural institutions across the Greater Cincinnati Region, providing education and resources to places like the Newport Aquarium, Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cincinnati Reds, and even the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Together, these organizations along with many others have created the Greater Cincinnati Access and Inclusion Network, to share ideas, resources, and collaborate to create a more inclusive region. Dr. Smith says, “When these organizations partner together, there’s less heavy-lifting to create a program from scratch. They can learn what’s working at other organizations and ask questions and having similar resources at similar organizations helps our families know what to expect. There’s also great local pride in saying to a visitor, ‘if you liked the resources at the zoo, you’ll love the events at the museum this weekend’!”Since the start of the program, over 400 CZBG employees have gone through the unique training with Dr. Smith. The training includes how employees can support those with developmental disabilities at the Zoo, how they can assist families when issues arise, and some of the types of developmental disabilities they may encounter. A big part of the training is to make interacting with families with developmental disabilities less intimidating. Employees can be role models and advocates, and the training helps them feel better prepared to make every visitors experience at CZBG a magical one.

No one knows the neurodiverse challenges of a zoo visit better than our member families with developmental disabilities, so Dr. Smith and CZBG invited 20 families representing different disabilities, age groups, and socioeconomic status to serve as part of the Zoo’s Access for All FAC. These families committed to serving as advisory members of the council for the length of the grant, sharing their experiences, guiding the direction of the Zoo Access for All program, as well as advocating for the work in the community.  Their perspectives were vital to understanding how the Zoo can create the best experiences for them.

“Unless you’ve been through it yourself, you never realize the challenges faced by the special needs community,” says Leesha Thrower, a FAC member, whose daughter was born with Down Syndrome. “You want your children to be included in all parts of life and have those outside the community understand how to interact and be supportive.”

Leesha, Cassandra and her son Troy mentioned above, together with the other members of the FAC helped set the goals and dreams for the program, which were not always what the CZBG team expected.

On the FAC’s recommendation, some of the improvements the Zoo has made include the installation of four adult-size changing tables, the creation of a sensory-friendly Santa meet-and-greet during the holiday season, and the construction of a calming room. A second calming room is underway on the opposite side of the Zoo for quick access when a family needs a place to self-regulate from sensory overload. The FAC share areas of improvement that they experience, as well as successful visits with the Zoo and in their own communities of similar families; they’ve become major advocates of the Zoo.

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. With 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. “It was great to have them in Roo Valley before it opened to the public” says Gasser, “We 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”. Events like this help CZBG better train employees, prep and distribute social narratives, and make updates to signage when needed. 

“They’re making fantastic changes,” Cassandra 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.”

While the CZBG team will submit the final reports for the IMLS grant in 2021, the program is built to last. Now being chaired by Alix Gasser, Director of Membership, Business Development and FUN! and Dave Jenike, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of the Zoo, the Zoo Access for All program will continue to grow and evolve.

“I have big shoes to fill, but I’m excited to work more closely with our FAC, other membership families, and visitors that can utilize these materials,” Alix Gasser says. “Though the program has an amazing foundation, we can always learn, grow and continue to develop our resources to make the Cincinnati Zoo a Zoo for All.” The Zoo Access for All program goes beyond just being inclusive for those with developmental disabilities, it also takes into account those in the community that have low socioeconomic status, English as a second language, or children that are terminally ill and cannot visit the Zoo (Children’s “Creature Connection”). “We want to stay relevant within our Community in an ever-changing world,” says Gasser, “I think our Zoo Access for All program will continue to do just that”.

Now, the CZBG is exploring other ways to become more accessible to visitors with disabilities, like those who are blind or visually impaired. The works not done, it’s only the beginning. “This program is ingrained in the culture of the Zoo now” says Dave Jenike, “Employees are now starting to ask themselves anytime anything new is being brought online, how can I make this more inclusive, more accessible”.

For more information on the Zoo Access for All program, visit www.cincinnatizoo.org/plan-your-visit/zoo-access-for-all.

Written by Alyssa O’Connell, Shasta Bray, and Alix Gasser.