Akron Zoo, first in Ohio to become sensory inclusive (pics) - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Akron Zoo, first in Ohio to become sensory inclusive (pics)

Sensory inclusion ribbon cutting. (Source: WOIO) Sensory inclusion ribbon cutting. (Source: WOIO)
Sensory bags (Source: WOIO) Sensory bags (Source: WOIO)
Fidget toys in Sensory bags. (Source: WOIO) Fidget toys in Sensory bags. (Source: WOIO)
(Source: Akron Zoo) (Source: Akron Zoo)
Akron Zoo (Source: WOIO) Akron Zoo (Source: WOIO)

The Akron Zoo is now in a league of its own, kinda.

The zoo has received its certification as sensory inclusive. This means to make the zoo's grounds more accessible to all visitors while promoting inclusive experiences for visitors with sensory processing needs, including autism.  

Children with Sensory Processing Disorders now have access to helpful resources such as fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, and weighted lap pads. There are also designated quiet zones and headphone zones throughout the zoo. 

The designation makes the zoo the first in Ohio, and the second in the nation, to become certified by KultureCity, a non-profit organization dedicated to rethinking accessibility to create acceptance and inclusion for all individuals. The Birmingham Zoo in Alabama launched its initiative in 2015. 

"One of our goals is to make the zoo accessible to everyone," said Akron Zoo President & CEO, Doug Piekarz. "By partnering with the very effective team at KultureCity we know that the zoo is more welcoming to all families and we are now equipped to offer a better experience for families with sensory needs."

The zoo started working with KultureCity in 2016. More than 100 staff members were trained on understanding people with sensory concerns and how to make their guests comfortable. The training lasted for about seven months. 

Born and raised in northeast Ohio, Amy Belles, her son Carson Belles and her husband Jeff Belles, thought why can't they bring what they're doing in Birmingham to the Akron Zoo. 

"We approached them [the zoo] to host a special needs night at the zoo as a give back to our community. We fundraised and we wanted the kids to enjoy the zoo without being judged and it was a success and I think that at that point they realized that there is a community out there that we're not reaching," said Amy Belles of the Akron Chapter of KultureCity. "For us this is personal. Our son Carson was diagnosed with autism at age 2, he is non-verbal and he uses a speech device to communicate. His behavior, due to anxiety and over-stimulation, can look really different at times. People are not aware or don't know enough about us to understand."

In addition to the changes, the zoo also added an event called "Zoothing Hour" that allows guests with special needs to come into the zoo an hour before it opens to enjoy the park without the large crowds. The next "Zoothing Hour" will be held on Tuesday, August 8 and again on Saturday, November 18, 2017.

"Anybody can come but we're really trying to encourage people with special needs to come. We'll be adding a lot more next year, I just wanted to do a soft launch to see how went," Akron Zoo Marketing & Group Sales Manager Elena Bell said.

Akron Zoo will have five quiet zones for guests who are in need of a quiet break, including a guest comfort station, which is a private room for guests to use. The zoo has also designated a few areas that may be louder than normal, like the carousel, where guests with sensory needs may need to use noise cancelling headphones.

The Akron Zoo is open 361 days a year. Hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, $9 for children, ages 2-14. Children under two are free and parking is $3.  

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