A to Zoo Accessibility at KidZooU Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center
How can you translate the moo of a cow to a child who cannot hear? How can you describe a goat to a child who cannot see?
These are the questions that the staff at the Philadelphia Zoo, along with parents of children with special needs, a volunteer committee of professionals, and funders, considered as they began the development of a new children’s zoo at America’s First Zoo. Their efforts are making it easier for families of children with special needs to participate in one of the Philadelphia Zoo’s most engaging, educational and entertaining experiences to date; a new wildlife academy that teaches children, the future stewards of our environment, how our actions can positively impact animals across the globe.
KidZooU: Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center opened on April 13, 2013 in Philadelphia, and with the help of area special needs community partners including: the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University, Overbrook School for the Blind, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, and the T21 Club of the Delaware Valley, an organization that supports awareness and inclusion of people with Down syndrome, the children’s zoo’s dynamic displays and interactive learning experiences are accessible to children of all abilities.
“The opening of the new KidZooU is an extremely exciting development for us as we unite a world-view education center with an up-close and personal children’s zoo to form a new wildlife academy,” said Vikram Dewan, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo. “KidZooU is designed to appeal to both toddlers and tweens alike, and will be used as a platform to mentor the next generation of protectors of our planet.”
Elements of KidZooU, from a focus on domestic rare breed animals to the expansion of the Philadelphia Zoo’s new animal travel and exploration trail system, are serving as models for other zoos, and now the universal design elements that are making the Philadelphia Zoo more accessible could be as well.
“It is important that children of all backgrounds and learning abilities have a place where they can learn about animals and why protecting our environment is so important to the preservation of animal species,” said Dick Faris, who, with his wife, Marilyn, were instrumental in the development of KidZooU. “The education of learning challenged children has always been dear to our hearts,” Mr. Faris said at the preview for KidZooU, which was attended by students of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where his mother was a longtime teacher. “My late mother was a teacher’s aide for hearing impaired and autistic children,” he said, “so I discovered early on the learning challenges these children face. I am so happy that experts in the field and parents of challenged children participated in the design.”
Planning discussions with community partners touched on topics such as noise and tactile sensitivity, terrain, helping families plan their visits in advance, and how best to approach a lost child. Ideas offered included everything from making water facilities convenient, clean and accessible to children who use G-Tubes for feeding, to identifying secluded spaces where families can get away for a break; from captioning videos to adding amenities such as durable, adolescent-sized changing tables in family restrooms. Other suggestions included opening the Zoo early for special needs families, accommodating special diets, and embracing high-tech solutions such as touch-screen picture menus for ordering.
“Deaf students are not that much different in the way they learn,” said Prinnie Eberle, a high school teacher at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. They need a lot of visual elements, things at their level, and to be able to touch and manipulate things. “That’s the way they communicate,” she said. Vibrating speakers can allow visitors to feel animal sounds, and using lights in exhibits, not just sounds, can also benefit the hearing impaired.
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