AKRON, Ohio — The Akron Zoo is now officially one of two sensory inclusive zoos in the country.

The zoo’s staff has been trained to assist guests who may be sensitive to loud noises and crowds, and to help them enjoy all the animals and attractions.

To achieve the designation, the zoo partnered with KultureCity, a nonprofit that works to help places create acceptance and inclusion for individuals of all unique abilities.

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Akron Zoo President and CEO Doug Piekarz said this is all an offshoot of a strategic planning initiative started in 2014 that took a hard look at ways to make the zoo friendly and accessible to all guests.

“Everyone should feel welcome at the Akron Zoo,” he said.

Piekarz said his staff worked closely with the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama — the first zoo to earn the designation — to ensure they got everything just right to assist guests with sensory concerns.

A driving force behind the initiative was Akron couple Jeff and Amy Belles who are a part of the Northeast Ohio chapter of KultureCity.

They are the ones who convinced Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, home of the NBA’s Cavaliers, to set aside a quiet room for fans and families to use should they need a break from a raucous game or a concert.

Amy Belles said their son Carson, 12, has autism and is nonverbal. Large crowds and noises — at places like the zoo — can be problematic, Amy said, so some families just avoid going there.

“This means these families are welcome every day at the zoo,” she said.

In addition to the training for all the 120 year-round employees and 150 seasonal workers, Piekarz said, there are special quiet areas set aside for families to use, including a room at the zoo entrance, and designated zones with signs to alert parents and others that it can be particularly loud.

To ensure all guests can enjoy every square inch of the facility — particularly the loud areas where the lions roar and the hyacinth macaws frequently squawk — the zoo has created sensory bags that can be borrowed for free.

Elena Bell, manager of marketing and group sales, said the bags — which resemble a string backpack — contain fidget toys and noise-cancelling headphones. Special weighted comfort blankets are also available.

Bell said signs have been installed to alert guests of four zones of the zoo that can be particularly noisy and cause sensory overload. One area is by the carousel.

Another five quiet areas with benches to relax on are also marked for guests.

As new attractions and animal exhibits are changed and added, Bell said, these zones and rest areas might have to be adjusted.

But the wild card is always the animals and the particular mood they might be in. “We can’t exactly tell the animals to be quiet,” she said.

The Belles — along with KultureCity — previously worked with the zoo to set aside special times for local families with children with autism and other sensory needs to visit.

The Akron Zoo now offers a so-called Zoothing Hour where guests with special needs can enter an hour before opening. The next Zoothing Hours are Aug. 8 and Nov. 18.

A tearful Amy Belles said initiatives like this make it possible for families like hers to experience something that others take for granted.

“We are often judged or clearly not understood,” she said, when a child suffers a meltdown.

Something as simple as offering sensory bags and designated quiet zones, Amy Belles said, is big step forward in ensuring accessibility to all families and individuals.

“The initiative breaks down barriers,” she said. “This initiative says you are welcome in this space.”

© 2017 Akron Beacon Journal
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