Close your eyes and think of the word “accessibility.”
What image did you see?
Chances are, you saw a ramp.
A vitally crucial physical accommodation that has been synonymous with accessibility for decades. At least, that’s what it was for me. Until I met a father and a son who shifted my perspective. I was working at an aquarium at the time, riding home on the train in my work T-shirt. The father noticed the logo and we started chatting about sharks. I love conversations like this - and I loved it even more when his son was so excited by the topic he started jumping up and down. His excitement got me excited. I asked if he liked to visit the aquarium. He never spoke, but his dad quickly did and said, “Oh no, we don’t go, he has autism and it would be too much.”
The two got off the train and I spent the rest of the commute sad, curious, and confused. What made it so hard to go to the aquarium, a place they clearly wanted to visit? And where else weren’t they going? I realized that accessibility is a huge word that means many, many things to many different people. Both of my uncles had muscular dystrophy. To me, access was a venue with a ramp. But the boy on the train did not need a ramp, he needed something completely different to feel like he could access the aquarium.
This was a lesson and an inspiration to reexamine the definition I hardwired in my mind. I now think of accessibility as a beautiful, giant umbrella term that means access for all. It means everyone gets to go. Accessibility could be dimmed lighting, a stuffed animal, a social story, automatic doors, trained staff, and yes, a ramp. It is the literal definition of something that helps you have access to visit, play, enjoy, and be included in the community.
After this chance encounter on the train, my life changed. When I got home I looked up more information. I found a statistic that said 70% of families impacted by autism are socially isolated. The family on the train was far from alone. So many were left out of the great things happening in their communities. I decided to found Pal Experiences, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making places, like the aquarium, more accessible to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. We examined the reasons why families were not going out and found the three most common challenges were anxiety, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties with communication.
Routine can be a source of comfort for many individuals with developmental disabilities. Going somewhere new is the opposite of routine and can cause:
- Anxiety: Not knowing what to expect can increase anxious feelings
- Sensory overload: New scenes come with different lights, noises, and smells very different from home. Some have said experiencing a new place can feel like “too much information,” where the elements are felt at an extreme and can be overwhelming.
- Non-verbal or limited speech: 25-30% of individuals with autism, one developmental disability diagnosis, are non-verbal, and many more have limited speech if they are feeling anxious (Autism Speaks). This makes communicating with staff at venues challenging.
Considering all of these things, it is often felt like it is just easier to stay home. This is a problem for individuals with developmental disabilities, their families, and the community at large.
Pal Experiences is fixing this. Through collaboration with behavioral therapists, people with disabilities, and caregivers, we were able to create digital tools that address each of these challenges. A Pal Video foreshadows what to expect, decreasing anxiety. A Pal page has insider tips and a sensory scale, and a Pal Guide provides picture exchange communication.
Each Pal Place partner now has the resources to actively include and provide access to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. Just as a ramp helps a guest who moves differently, these tools support guests who think differently. At Pal, we feel that this is the next level of accessibility and we do not plan on stopping until we truly have communities where everyone gets to go.
Think of the word accessibility again. Has your image changed?
About the Author:
Melanie Isaacs founded Pal Experiences after meeting a boy on a train who felt like he could not visit an aquarium because he had autism, now she works so everyone gets to go, making venues more inclusive for guests with developmental disabilities. Melanie has a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a Master's in Biology plus a Certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Management from Western Illinois University, and a passion to achieve the next level of accessibility for all.