The Akron Zoo became the first zoo in Ohio, and the second in the nation, to become certified by KultureCity as a sensory inclusive zoo. KultureCity is a non-profit organization dedicated to rethinking accessibility to create acceptance and inclusion for all individuals.

The sensory initiative includes training for zoo staff and volunteers on autism and other sensory needs, on grounds signage designating quiet and headphone areas for visitors, plus sensory bags that include fidget toys, noise cancelling headphones and more. Weighted lap blankets are also available.

The zoo began to work with KultureCity in 2016 when the local chapter headed up by Jeff and Amy Belles hosted an event at the zoo similar to the zoo's Boo at the Zoo called Spooktacular, for kids with autism and other sensory needs to experience the zoo.

After working with the Belles', the zoo approached them about becoming more sensory inclusive. In addition to our new partnership, 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. "Zoothing Hour" will be held on Aug. 8 and Nov. 18.

"One of our goals is to make the zoo accessible to everyone," commented 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."

Anyone needing a sensory bag during their visit can check one out for free at the office located in the Welcome Center. The 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.

"KultureCity is honored to partner with the amazing Akron Zoo on the sensory inclusion initiative," said Dr. Julian Maha, founder and CEO of KultureCity. "By becoming sensory inclusive, the Akron Zoo is helping to create acceptance and inclusion for so many individuals that feel isolated from the community and have been afraid to venture out to the zoo."

Contact the Akron Zoo at 330-375-2550 or visit www.akronzoo.org.