Inclusive Zoos:
Embracing Visitors with Communication Differences

Franklin Park Zoo Communication Board

Zoos have long been treasured as places of wonder and learning, offering up-close encounters with the natural world. However, for visitors with communication differences, such as non-speaking individuals or autistic individuals, these experiences can be significantly enhanced through thoughtful inclusivity measures.

Zoos provide a sensory-rich environment where children can see, hear, and learn about the diverse species that inhabit our planet. They are spaces where young minds are encouraged to make decisions: whether to watch the towering giraffes first or to rush to the colorful world of tropical birds.

However, for children who are developing speech or for those who are non-verbal, the zoo experience can be starkly different. The ability to express excitement, ask questions, or even choose the next exhibit to visit, often taken for granted, can be a source of frustration for these individuals. Without effective means of communication, the vibrant world of the zoo can become a place of isolation, transforming them from active participants into mere observers of their own adventure.

To address this, zoos can implement various inclusive strategies. Training staff members to interact effectively with patrons with different disabilities, including autistic individuals, offering portable communication boards, and installing public display communication boards in key areas are essential steps. These initiatives are more than just tools; they serve as gateways that open up the wonders of the zoo to every visitor, regardless of their ability to speak. They empower non-verbal individuals and those developing speech to make choices, ask questions, and fully engage with the magic of the zoo. Ensuring that their experience is as enriching and fulfilling as that of their speaking peers marks the beginning of the journey towards truly inclusive zoos.


Understanding Communication Barriers and Options

When it comes to ensuring that zoos are accessible and enjoyable for all visitors, understanding and addressing communication barriers is paramount. This is especially crucial for autistic individuals and those who are non-speaking or have speech or language differences.

Kendra Frank, a mother of a non-speaking child, shares a poignant experience that underscores this need: “As a mother of a non-speaking child, I’ve faced challenges during our zoo visits. My son relies on LAMP on his iPad for communication. On one occasion, his iPad ran out of battery, so I turned to our low-tech binder backup. Unfortunately, the zoo communication board I had printed from the Arkansas Down Syndrome Association didn’t match the animals at our zoo. This discrepancy led to immense frustration for my son. It made me wonder, why can’t there be communication boards tailored to the specific animals of each zoo? This experience prompted me to research zoos that offer such specialized resources.”

Kendra’s experience is not unique. Many families and caregivers of non-speaking individuals or those with speech differences encounter similar obstacles. These challenges can transform what should be an engaging and educational outing into a stressful and isolating experience. 

While Kendra’s son had access to a speech-generating device, it’s important to recognize that many children with limited or no speech are not as fortunate. Often, these children are in the early stages of receiving support. They may not yet be receiving services or have access to assistive technology, making their need for accessible communication options even more critical. The reality is that many families visiting zoos might be in the process of navigating these challenges for the first time. In such scenarios, the availability of simple, user-friendly communication tools at the zoo can make a significant difference.

This brings us to the concept of communication boards. At its most basic level, a communication board is a tool that allows individuals to express their needs, wants, and thoughts by pointing to pictures or symbols. These boards are designed to be intuitive and require minimal training or familiarity to use effectively. They typically feature a range of images representing common needs, feelings, preferences, and, in the context of a zoo, specific animals and attractions.

Playground Communication Boards for a City Playground by Smarty Symbols

By incorporating communication boards in their premises, zoos can provide a means for all visitors, regardless of their speech capabilities, to interact with their environment and companions. These tools can be particularly life-changing for children who are still in the early phases of developing their communication skills or awaiting access to more advanced speech aids. Zoos that implement such inclusive features not only enhance the experience for these visitors but also demonstrate a commitment to accessibility and inclusivity, ensuring that their space is truly welcoming for everyone.

Learning from Franklin Park Zoo: A Collaborative Success Story

The introduction of communication boards at Franklin Park Zoo, a part of Zoo New England, is a testament to the power of collaboration and shared dreams in making public spaces more inclusive. This successful implementation was a result of the combined efforts of Amanda Schaumburg of Panda Speech, Barbara Fernandes from Smarty Symbols, and the dedicated team at Zoo New England.

Amanda Schaumburg, reflecting on her collaboration, shared, “Communication Inclusivity at the Zoo! I was honored to work with my friend @geekbarbara, CEO of @smartysymbols, on the All Voices, Any Place initiative in Boston this past November. Her dream was to install communication boards in playgrounds, schools, churches, parks, around Boston while we were at ASHA. My dream… the zoo! I want to personally thank @zoonewengland for being dedicated to inclusivity and accessibility for people with communication differences.”

Communication Boards at Franklin Park Zoo

This collaborative effort led to the careful customization of vocabulary and the strategic placement of these boards within the zoo. These boards not only enhance the visitor experience but also feature a QR code that allows parents to download the board on their smartphone through a free app for use around the park. This innovative feature extends the board’s utility beyond its physical location, making the entire zoo visit more seamless and engaging for families with communication differences.

Julia Whyte, Community Partnership Coordinator at Zoo New England, also emphasized the zoo’s commitment: “We are committed to ensuring that the Zoo experience is welcoming and accessible for guests of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences.”

The successful implementation of communication boards at Franklin Park Zoo marked a significant milestone for Smarty Symbols – it was their first project specifically tailored for a zoo environment. This pioneering initiative has set a new standard for inclusivity in public spaces and serves as an inspiring model for other zoos and institutions worldwide.

Under this initiative, communication boards were installed in two distinct zoos: Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo. Each zoo boasts different exhibits and attractions, and therefore, required a bespoke approach. Smarty Symbols took on this challenge by customizing each communication board to precisely match the primary exhibits of each respective zoo. This customization ensured that the boards were not only functional but also directly relevant to the experiences and interactions of zoo visitors.

The process involved meticulous attention to detail and a deep understanding of the specific needs of zoo visitors, particularly those with communication differences. The final designs were a harmonious blend of practicality and inclusivity, reflecting the unique animal inhabitants and attractions of each zoo.

Expressive Go: A speech generating screen made for zoos

In addition to the physical communication boards, Smarty Symbols extended their inclusivity efforts with a digital solution. Once the design for each board was finalized, a similar setup was integrated into Expressive Go, a speech-generating app created by Smarty Symbols CEO and Speech-language pathologist, Barbara Fernandes.

 This innovative approach meant that zoo patrons could download the app free of charge onto their phones or mobile devices and access the customized communication tools as they walked around the zoo. This digital extension provided an additional layer of accessibility, allowing families and individuals to interact and engage with the zoo exhibits in a more meaningful and personal way.

Expressive Go, an impactful speech app developed as part of the “All Voices, Any Place” initiative, stands out as a remarkable example of how technology can foster inclusivity in diverse settings. This collaborative effort, involving Smarty Ears and led by Barbara Fernandes, has brought to life an app that’s versatile and user-friendly, catering to the communication needs of individuals in various environments, including zoos.

This app represents a significant leap forward in inclusive technology, offering a specialized free screen specifically designed for use in zoo environments.

The most recent update to Expressive Go is particularly noteworthy – the addition of a free screen dedicated to zoo vocabulary. This new feature was specifically designed to enhance the zoo experience for visitors, enabling them to communicate effectively and engage more deeply with the exhibits. The zoo vocabulary screen includes a variety of terms and images related to animals, zoo activities, and common requests, ensuring that visitors have the language tools they need at their fingertips.

At a Practical Level: What Can Zoos Do?

Taking action to make zoos more inclusive for visitors with communication differences involves implementing practical, effective solutions. Here’s what zoos can do to ensure every visitor has an enriching and enjoyable experience:

  1. Install Diverse Communication Boards: Building on the success of initiatives like those at Franklin Park Zoo, other zoos can install customized communication boards. These should be strategically placed in key areas and tailored to reflect the zoo’s specific exhibits and animals. Ensuring these boards are visually appealing and easy to understand will cater to a wider audience.

  2. Utilize Technology with Apps Like Expressive Go: Integrating technology, like the Expressive Go app, can complement physical communication boards. Zoos can promote this app to visitors, offering them a portable, customizable communication tool. The app’s zoo-specific screen can greatly enhance the visitor experience by providing relevant vocabulary for zoo settings.

  3. Offer Staff Training and Sensitivity Workshops: Training zoo staff to recognize and use communication aids effectively is vital. Workshops on sensitivity and inclusivity can help staff better understand and respond to the needs of visitors with communication differences.

  4. Create Sensory-Friendly Environments: For visitors who might be overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli of a zoo, creating designated quiet areas or sensory-friendly zones can be beneficial. These spaces allow for a moment of respite and can be equipped with sensory tools like noise-canceling headphones.

  5.  Gather Feedback and Continuously Improve: Collecting feedback from visitors, especially those who use these communication tools, is essential for continuous improvement. Regular updates to the tools and strategies based on visitor feedback can keep the zoo’s approach to inclusivity fresh and effective.
  6. Partner with Community Organizations: Building partnerships with local schools, disability advocacy groups, and other community organizations can enhance the zoo’s inclusivity efforts. These partnerships can offer additional resources and support, and help in spreading awareness about the zoo’s accessibility features.

How We Can Help: Guiding Zoos Towards Inclusivity

For zoo directors and administrators, embarking on the journey to make their spaces more inclusive might seem like a daunting task. Recognizing this, Smarty Symbols offers comprehensive consultation and support to ease this transition and ensure that zoos can effectively cater to visitors with communication differences.

Constitution Park & Arboretum Playground Communication Boards
  1. Strategic Placement and Custom Design of Communication Boards: Understanding that each zoo is unique, Smarty Symbols works closely with zoo teams to identify the most strategic locations for public display communication boards. Our approach is not one-size-fits-all; we offer 100% custom designs that are tailored to match the specific exhibits of each zoo. This customization ensures that the communication boards are not only functional but also seamlessly integrate into the zoo’s environment.

  2. Integration with Expressive Go: All our communication boards feature a QR code that links directly to Expressive Go. This integration provides visitors with an easy way to access a digital version of the communication board on their mobile devices, enhancing their ability to communicate on the go. It’s a simple yet effective way to extend the utility of the physical boards.

  3. Design of Matching Brochures for Visitor Centers: In addition to the communication boards, Smarty Symbols can design brochures that mirror the content of the boards. These brochures can be made available at zoo registration desks or visitor centers, offering visitors a portable communication tool they can carry throughout their visit.

  4. Staff Training and Support: Recognizing that the effectiveness of these tools also depends on the staff’s ability to assist visitors in using them, we offer training programs for zoo staff. These sessions are designed to educate staff on how to use the communication boards and the Expressive Go app, and how to effectively assist visitors who rely on these tools.

At Smarty Symbols, we understand the complexities and challenges involved in making a public space like a zoo more inclusive. Our goal is to provide comprehensive support, from the design and implementation of communication tools to staff training and ongoing assistance. We believe that with the right tools and knowledge, any zoo can become a more inclusive and welcoming space for all visitors.

Zoo directors and administrators interested in making their spaces more inclusive are encouraged to reach out to us for more information. Together, we can work towards creating a zoo experience that is accessible, enjoyable, and fulfilling for every visitor.