By joining forces, the Friends of the Zoo and Variety KC have partnered to make Kansas City’s Zoo among the most inclusive in the country. The Kansas City Zoo plays such an important role in connecting children to the natural world. It’s a childhood rite of passage and a memory-maker. Still, not every child has been able to fully experience a zoo and facilities all over the nation are beginning to implement programs of inclusion to remedy that.
No other zoo has committed to the level of inclusiveness as our zoo in Kansas City. Announcing a partnership between Variety KC and the Friends of the Zoo, Inc. (FOTZ)! This partnership ensured the zoo’s new Exploration Play area is fully inclusive, allowing all children to participate together. Other elements of inclusion will also be made available through sensory equipment.
Variety Kansas City (“Variety KC”) is an organization that advocates for the inclusiveness of children with disabilities within the Kansas City community. Friends of the Zoo, Inc. (“FOTZ”), the operator of the Kansas City Zoo (“Zoo”), has a significant interest in ensuring that all guests of the Zoo, including children with disabilities, have a positive experience while visiting the Zoo.
From the surface and throughout each feature of the play area, every consideration has been made for absolute inclusiveness. The partnership started in 2017, as FOTZ was planning for a new area at the Zoo, Variety KC was consulted in order to ensure the area’s features were inclusive to children with disabilities. Some of the exciting new equipment includes a zip line that has companion harnesses so a parent or partner can accompany a child with special needs. There is an “elephant swing” that is accessible for children with special needs, but accommodates multiple children – encouraging engagement among all kids on the swing. Special solid surfacing will allow children in power wheelchairs or using gait walkers to access all areas of the exhibit. Although ADA accepted, a single piece of mulch from a mulched playground surface can damaging the mechanics of a $10,000 power wheelchair. Accessible is not necessarily inclusive according to Deborah Wiebrecht, the Executive Director of Variety KC.
There will be a low sensory area (used for calming children and/or breast feeding mothers seeking privacy) and special sensory kits with calming aids available.
Wiebrecht explains that the most important part of this effort is the social aspect of the play area. “Play time is the key time for children to learn to interact, to resolve conflict, and realize we’re all different. Because the majority of playgrounds and play areas are not inclusive, some children don’t often meet their peers with special needs. Inclusive opportunities like the zoo’s will allow peers to meet and play together, overcoming obstacles and differences together. This is how a caring community is created, this is how to raise open-minded, empathetic, and cooperative adults.”
Wiebrecht points out that the inclusiveness extends beyond children. This totally accessible and inclusive destination is also a benefit to grandparents who may be mobility challenged, or for a parent who may be a disabled veteran. “One out of four families has a member with a disability. Can you imagine excluding 25% of your friends from joining you?” asks Wiebrecht.
Another area of inclusiveness are the adaptive golf carts used within the zoo itself. Currently a visitor in a wheelchair is put in back of the train with no companions near by – which means most families don’t utilize the train and can’t take advantage of the whole zoo. These new golf carts allow for guests in wheelchairs and their family, caregivers, or companions to ride with them.
Variety KC is a local chapter of International Variety and all money raised in our area stays here. Based on feedback from other Variety chapters, Kansas City is rapidly becoming a leader in inclusive communities. “What FOTZ is doing will improve lives here in Kansas City and offer enjoyment to the thousands of families who visit our area and zoo each year. Variety KC is proud to be a part of this exciting project.”