Business Resources - Facility Certification - July 2018

1807_biz_certification_1A World of Opportunity

With certification program, Alabama nonprofit KultureCity helps facilities to become sensory inclusive 

by Mike Bederka

For any person with sensory sensitivity, especially a child on the autism spectrum, an amusement park or attraction can be a daunting place. Kinetic environments full of smells, sounds, and sights may cause sensory overload and make for a less-than-enjoyable experience for families with special needs.

Julian Maha has dealt with these situations firsthand. His 10-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and, for a long time, struggled at the museums and zoos the family loves to visit.

“He definitely wanted to engage,” shares Maha, an emergency room physician in Birmingham, Alabama, “but there weren’t any tools to help mitigate the potential challenges he faced.”

So, Maha sought to change the situation, benefiting his son and others like him, as well as the attractions industry in the process.

“When you open up your facility to someone with a sensory issue, there’s no telling the world of opportunity that you can show them,” Maha says. 

Backed by Research

Three years ago, Maha founded Kulture­City, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a community of acceptance and inclusion for all people with special needs. One key facet centers on a program that certifies facilities—including zoos, museums, aquariums, family entertainment centers, and amusement and theme parks—as sensory inclusive for guests.

Alabama’s Birmingham Zoo became the first venue to receive this distinction, with roots being planted in 2015 as part of a sensory-inclusive Halloween event, says Roger Torbert, the zoo’s vice president of education. Roughly 400 people attended this invite-only “Spooktacular,” a partnership between Kulture­City and the facility that featured special attractions like a “sensory bin” and took care to eliminate flashing lights and other sources of overstimulation.

“Many guests said this [‘Spooktacular’] was the first time they visited the zoo,” says Torbert, noting parents’ caution about the crowds and being judged by other families if their child has a meltdown.

Sensing the comfort and joy created at the Halloween program, the zoo’s management sought to extend the relationship with KultureCity and assist people on a daily basis.

“We didn’t want to just have that one sensory night and say, ‘OK, families, we have you taken care of, and we will see you next year,’” Torbert explains.

The zoo staff and Maha conducted a focus group with 200 families with sensory sensitivities and other disabilities, such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Giving each family a free membership, they collected data for one year on subjects, like how they prepared for the zoo trip, their interactions with the staff, and their overall experience. 

Their results, published in a peer-reviewed medical journal (see note at end), formed the foundation of Kulture­City’s certification program.

“We did the right thing,” Torbert says proudly. “It can be replicated, and not just at zoos.”

Comprehensive Training

The certification process begins with an initial site survey by KultureCity staff to see how the facility operates and note items like noisy or quiet spaces, Maha says. After that, employees undergo training by a medical professional, who could be a physician, nurse, occupational therapist, behavioral therapist, or speech-language pathologist. He recommends at least 80 percent of employees who interact with guests participate in the training. 

During this process, staffers learn about sensory sensitivities and the difficulties families face, break into groups for role-playing, and discuss the services and features available to families. 

Venues will have designated, well-marked quiet areas to decompress, as well as an accessibility guide on their websites. For the Birmingham Zoo, this visitor info features a unique “social story” geared for children with sensory sensitivities, which helps to smooth any potential bumps. One section reads: “Sometimes the animals are sleeping, or it is too cold to come outside. I know that I can come see them again another time.” Another says: “I can visit the petting zoo and brush the animals that are close to me. The animals like to be softly brushed on their backs. If I don’t want to brush the animals, I can stay with my group and watch.”

“Now,” Torbert says, “parents can talk through a situation ahead of time.”

The zoo also offers special sensory bags with noise-reducing headphones, fidget toys to ease stress, and a lanyard with “KC VIP” to help staff easily identify a guest who may need some extra help.

For example, standing in a long line for an extended time could be an issue, Torbert says: “We can help them circumvent that situation.”

Since the Birmingham Zoo became certified, 13 other zoos and aquariums have followed suit, Maha says. About 100 total venues have received KultureCity’s seal, including arenas, movie theaters, and restaurants.

Maha anticipates even more facilities will look to cater to this rapidly growing population—a segment that sometimes shies away from public spaces.

“The only way you can help these children to engage their community and live amazing lives is to expose them as much as they can,” he says. “If not, by and large, they’re going to be isolated.”

Visit to read “A Community-Based Sensory Training Program Leads to Improved Experience at a Local Zoo for Children with Sensory Challenges.”

Sunny Days: Sesame Place Becomes Certified Autism Center

Credit: Sesame PlaceLast year, the hallmark children’s TV show “Sesame Street” introduced Julia, a groundbreaking character with autism; soon after, the now-famous Muppet debuted at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, meeting and greeting guests.

To increase the awareness and understanding of autism, the theme park recently became the first park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

The distinction generated international headlines and an outpouring of support, says Cathy Valeriano, park president of Sesame Place: “We’re so proud. It’s amazing the impact something like this has on our park and community.”

Sesame Place worked closely with IBCCES to develop a robust training program where staff members learn about sensory and emotional awareness, environmental conditions, communication, and social and motor skills. Employees must pass the competency test following the comprehensive training.

The facility, along with IBCCES, also developed a sensory guide for all the rides, attractions, and shows. With this tool, which can be found on Sesame Place’s website, guests can plot their trip, avoiding areas with high sensory stimulation if desired.

“Going to the theme park environment can be very intense for some families,” Valeriano says. “Preplanning is a big part of what they do.”

In addition, Sesame Place introduced two new quiet rooms near the center of the park where families can desensitize and get away from the hustle and bustle, as well as launched additional programming with Julia.

“Our overall mission is to provide inclusive activities for all guests,” Valeriano says. “This is just another way to meet that commitment.”