Equal Access:
How the Nation’s Zoos and Aquariums Are Serving Guests with Disabilities

A trip to a zoo or aquarium should be an easy and fun experience for everyone, including those with disabilities.  Since the inception of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, zoos and aquarium have been finding creative ways to ensure that all visitors enjoy the exhibits.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is one of three aquariums run by the state of North Carolina. The 93,000-square-foot facility closed its doors in 2004 to undergo a renovation that not only tripled its size but made the aquarium completely accessible for people with disabilities. The physical changes have made it easier for the disabled to come to the aquarium, but the aquarium wanted to find ways for the disabled to enjoy the beauty of the animals in the exhibits as well. 
“Our exhibit, Fintastic, allows those with visual impairments to learn about the animals that we have here,” said Exhibits Curator Georgia Minnich. “Fintastic delivers information through several senses. The exhibit includes life-size, 3-D models built for hands-on exploration.”
When visitors touch any of the 3-D models in the exhibit, an audio guide begins to play and instructs the visitors where to place their hands to feel the mouth, eyes, fins and body shapes of that particular animal.
“The models have raised textures, and we use the texture to show the different features on the animals,” explained Minnich. “For example, the spots on the flounder model are raised, so when a hand goes over the model, the spots can be felt. The base of the model is sand, and we put corresponding textured spots in that sand so by touching it, people can feel how the fish use camouflage in their natural environment.”  
Created by model designer Rebecca Fuller, the textured 3-D models are used throughout the aquarium, even on directional maps.  “We do not have painted signs for the displays. We have 3-D signs, so people can touch the sign and feel how the river turns, and feel the coastline too.”
The 3-D effects for the aquarium are the result of a research grant that studied how to effectively communicate information to people who are visually impaired or blind.
Volunteers also walk through the exhibit with various items such as otter pelts, skulls and other life-like items that visitors can touch to get a true idea of what the animals look like and how they live.
“We also have raised lettering and Braille throughout the exhibits,” Minnich noted.  “The aquarium was designed so people with any disability could have access throughout the aquarium.”
The parking lot, entrance, exhibits, restrooms and marsh boardwalk are accessible to visitors who use wheelchairs. Parking for people with disabilities is near the entrance, and wheelchairs are free to visitors with a photo ID. Service animals are allowed in the facility. The aquarium can also make volunteers available to disabled guests if advanced notice is given ahead of the visit. 
As building superintendent of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, Tom Coit oversees the needs of disabled visitors each day.  The 84,000-square-foot facility welcomes more than 450,000 guests each year. Like its sister aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores, the Fort Fisher facility underwent a major renovation that tripled the size of the aquarium and made all of the facility accessible to those with disabilities.
“We have no stairs throughout the aquarium,” Coit noted. “The conservatory slopes upward for wheelchair access. Also where there are level changes, we have built ramps.”
The aquarium also has an elevator, and all entrances, exits, water fountains, exhibits and restrooms are wheelchair accessible, including the interpretative bike paths and garden decks.
Guided tours for the visually impaired can also be pre-arranged with aquarium staff. The aquarium provides assisted listening devices for amplified narration free of charge, and close-captioned films for the hearing impaired and deaf and large-script films for the visually impaired are available.
The Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure in Salina, Kan., is both a zoo and immersive museum that focuses on seven world regions from the tropical rainforest to the Polar zone.  The 70-acre facility welcomes about 150,000 guests per year.
“We want to make sure that all our guests can enjoy their visit,” said Jeff Parker, director of Operations.  “We run trams throughout the park.  We have four trams and two of the four trams running will have wheelchair accessible carts. We also have available for rent electric carts as well as regular wheelchairs.”
Security personnel also give rides up and down hills for those visitors who are ambulatory but not able to walk the terrain.  There are walkways throughout the facility but no stairs. 
“While we are completely ADA compliant, we still look for ways to make the visits for the disabled easier,” Parker noted. “For example, when we give tours and if there is a hearing impaired person on the tour, we have a volunteer who will text message the info to their phone. We work with people on an individual basis. If they let us know that they are coming, we will find a way to make their visit easier.”
As the director of Marketing and Visitor Services at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, John Sutter oversees the facilities and programs for disabled guests.  More than 250,000 guests visit the 10-acre campus each year.
“We opened our doors seven years ago, so this facility was built keeping the disabled in mind,” noted Sutter. “We want to make each person’s visit a great visit. We want to welcome anyone who wants to experience this great place; we want to make their visit a visit to always remember and one they want to have again.”
A recipient of the “Proudly Accessible Dubuque Award,” The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium offers closed captioning on exhibits plus listening assisted devices for the deaf and hearing impaired. Audio scripts are also available for the visually impaired. There are Braille signs at emergency and fire exits as well as strobe light alarms. There are ramps, elevators and wide corridors that make the facility accessible to wheelchair users. 
“We also offer the ‘All-star Program’ for guests with severe and profound disabilities,” Sutter said. “For these guests and their caretakers, admission is free, and we have wheelchairs available for visitors to borrow.”
Jenkinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant, N.J., is a 25,000-square-foot, privately run facility that welcomes about 240,000 guests per year.  The aquarium houses 1,700 individual animals that represent 300 species. The 88,000-gallon tanks contain sharks, harbor seals, alligators and sting rays.  As director of the aquarium, Cindy Claus is responsible for making sure that all guests are able to enjoy the boardwalk facility.
“Most of the aquarium is accessible for wheelchairs, but there is one small section that it’s impossible to allow wheelchairs because of how the building is constructed with the boardwalk wrapped around it. With this in mind, we go out of our way to make sure that people experience the beauty of the animals at the aquarium.”
For those who are ambulatory, but cannot stand for long periods of time, the aquarium has benches and chairs for sitting. The aquarium uses staff and volunteers to bring the animals and the exhibits to those who cannot see them in the exhibit setting.  Staff members will also stay with a guest with a disability throughout their visit and lead them through the exhibits if the facility is notified ahead of time. 
“We come up with different ways to enhance our visitors’ experiences here. We do have constraints because of the building, but we try very hard to please each visitor and they do appreciate our extra efforts.” –

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