Creating Accessibility and Inclusion for Audiences of All Abilities | NAAEE

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Creating Accessibility and Inclusion for Audiences of All Abilities

To evaluate their organization’s commitment to inclusion and accessibility in their environmental education programs, the Riveredge Nature Center partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education to hire a young adult intern with special needs. The role of the intern was to specifically provide them with feedback to ensure EE program accessibility to more people of all abilities.

Carly Hintz is the Educational Technology & Evaluation Specialist at Riveredge. Read her blog entry, “In Making a Difference” (below) for further details of the insights and benefits gained from employing their intern with special needs.

Read the NAAEE blog “Different Abilities and Possibilities” (below) posted by Amesha Morris, DEI eePro Group Moderator. This captures her interview with Carly and Rach, the Riveredge intern who inspired the program changes and staff training to better meet the needs of a more diverse learning environment.

We are very fortunate to have the team of Riveredge Nature Center, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin Center for EE serve as our eePro discussion hosts starting today, April 12 through Wednesday, April 19 to answer any questions you might have about their inclusion and accessibility efforts. In addition to discussion host Carly Hintz, Emily Lewis will be online as the Inquiry-Based Curriculum & Instruction Manager at Riveredge. Dr. Kendra Liddicoat, Assistant Professor at Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is also on hand to add to this discussion.

Please post your questions and use them as your inclusion resources this week!:)

Thank you, Carly, Emily and Kendra, for sharing your time and insights with our eePro Group this week!

Do you mind sharing whether you had to change your intern job description much for your employment posting?...and for your recruitment efforts, did you target any specific agencies or networks to get the candidate pool with abilities you were seeking?

Thanks for starting this important discussion, Darryl! Your question about modifying the position description to allow for a more diverse applicant pool is a great one.

To clarify, there were three host sites (nature centers) that hired interns during summer of 2016, each seeking different needs and abilities to achieve organizational goals. While the positions advertised from the other two sites were more targeted (i.e. taking care of the animals, visitor services, etc.), Riveredge was really open to seeing what the applicant pool brought forward and working with that person(s) to determine what projects would match the organization's needs with their abilities. We knew that we wanted to focus on enhancing accessibility and inclusion related to our educational programs, in general, so we used that as a broad starting point to launch creation of the position description.

Then, as a team, we generated a list of possible "projects" that would benefit the nature center and included that within the actual job announcement so that the applicant could pick and choose what they felt they could assist with or grow their skills. I believe this was a great avenue for Riveredge to attract the right person for the right job and we were incredibly pleased with the accomplishments that took place during that short few months.

For reference, I included the position announcement here.

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Hello, Everyone!

Thank you for your interest in this important conversation. I would like to briefly introduce myself, as well as provide context to the two items I am posing for this thread's audience below.

Background: I co-mentored Rach Hoffman with Carly Hintz throughout Rach's time as an Intern at Riveredge Nature Center, including Rach's assistant teaching during spring and fall school programming, summer camps, and throughout my fall homeschool classes with our 4K & 5K students. Rach's internship funding also sponsored Riveredge's ability to order curricular & tangible resources related to adapting environmental education-related programming to meet the needs of a variety of participant abilities. Rach's interest in sensory-related adaptations & materials had a significant impact on the awareness of our Seasonal Naturalists; we were able to integrate Rach's contributions during our Fall 2016 Training Day with Seasonal & Volunteer Naturalists, where she co-presented with one of our Seasonal Naturalists. During our WAEE Winter Workshop 2017, Carly, myself, Dr. Liddicoat with UW-SP's Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, and Emily Brown with Wehr Nature Center co-presented about this grant-funded internship program. We emphasized the importance of Person First language, and provided related resources and suggestions for how to foster accessibility & inclusion in EE programming. Given our specific experiences, we prepared a few simulations that highlighted visual impairment and sensory-related specific needs.

Questions/ideas we have for you:

1. Based off of the questions we received during our Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education Winter Workshop 2017 participants (students through seasoned teachers), I would like to offer a space here to share where to find & how to incorporate resources that can help those with specific needs more readily participate in EE programming.

2. Also, we would like to reach out and ask, how do other organizations incorporate feedback from those with specific needs when intentionally changing their accessibility & inclusion efforts (for example, including Universal Design elements in their buildings, and adaptations to lesson planning such as materials & technology within their educational programming)?

With Gratitude,
Emily Lewis

Thanks for sharing your position announcement, Carly. I can see how the general description of the "Inclusion and Accessibility Intern" qualifications and tasks allowed you to have the flexibility depending on the most qualified in the candidate pool. But if your organization's goal was to specifically explore program inclusion for folks of different abilities, did you also target the job announcement to agencies or networks from which such candidates could be recruited or did you just do an open recruitment to see who was interested?

And as we all know, when one discusses diversity, equity and inclusion issues, politically correct terminology is always a consideration so as not to offensive when talking about race, ethnicity, gender, age....etc. Can you share your insight about appropriate terminology when working with communities with disabilities, or share resources that can help us understand the best language to use?

Thanks for your inspiration, Emily! I, too, hope other folk do use this discussion thread as an opportunity to share their resources and experiences working with people with special needs!

In her blog, Carly shared some great program nuggets (using plastic frog models as a precursor to handling the live animal, presenting a visual program schedule to ease anxiety, using tactile objects to focus attention) Has anyone developed a list of disabilities we as professionals should be more aware about in developing programs accompanied by the best teaching methods to make the educational experience more relevant to these learners? If no document exists, it'd be great to hear about folks' experiences and their programmatic solutions...

I'm excited that we are discussing inclusive hiring on EEPro! Working with Riveredge, Wehr, and Schlitz Audubon Nature Centers last summer really opened my eyes to the possibilities and benefits of not only diversifying the audiences we serve, but also our workforce. I was impressed by how seamlessly staff with and without disabilities were able to work together to put on successful special events, lead environmental education programs, care for ambassador animals, and complete land management projects. This internship project was a good reminder that while adaptive equipment and accessible facilities are important, it's attitudes and community that make all the difference. The supervisors at Wehr, Riveredge, and Schlitz Audubon inspired their entire organizations to embrace inclusivity in a new way and learn together.

I would love to hear from other nature centers and camps that are working to employ people of all abilities. Do you partner with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to offer paid temporary work experiences? Do you work with local colleges who have programs for students with intellectual disabilities? Have you ever applied for a grant through the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation ( that funded this project? Do you know of other relevant funding sources? It seems like there are lots of possibilities to expand beyond our few Wisconsin nature centers!

Darryl asked about appropriate language. As in all groups, different people prefer to identify themselves in different ways. Some prefer Person First Language ("a person with a disability") while others prefer Identity First Language ("a disabled person"). As a college professor, I teach my students to use Person First Language because I think that is the approach generally expected of professionals. I do encourage all of you consider both (or multiple) perspectives, though. Here are some articles to help you out and get you thinking.

Hello all, I was wondering if you could example or give some examples of challenges or hurdles you faced as an organization when mindfully including special need individuals to your staff? And if possible how you faced those challenges?

In developing the new (to be published very soon) Community Engagement: Guidelines for Excellence, we pulled together some additional resources that can be useful:

American Bar Association. Planning Accessible Meetings and Events: A Tool Kit, 2015.

Earth Force. Including Special Education Students in Earth Force Field Work. Denver, CO.
eepro/resources/including-special-education-students. [available in English and Spanish]

Snow, Kathie. Examples of People First Language, 2007.

United States Access Board. Outdoor Developed Areas: A Summary of Accessibility Standards for Federal
Outdoor Developed Areas. 2014.

U.S. Department of Education. Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004.

U.S. Department of Justice. 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

Thanks for the additional links, Bora! I found the Earth Force document particularly useful. I am glad NAAEE is making some of these available as part of the effort to create the Community EE Guidelines. I look forward to reading the final version of those guidelines soon! The draft contained a lot of good information and case studies that will be good for use in my classes.

Transportation was an challenge faced by all three sites and their interns. Riveredge, Wehr, and Schlitz Audubon Nature Centers are not on a city bus line. I received inquiries from many potential interns who decided not to apply because they needed to be able to take public transportation to work. Interns at two sites used a van or taxi-service to get to work. That required prior scheduling and, occasionally, a lot of waiting. The intern at the other site lived close enough to bike to work. One of the ways the nature centers accommodated these transportation challenges was to allow interns to work part-time rather than 40 hours a week. The reduced schedule was more feasible with the taxi/van schedule. The challenges we faced were a good reminder that access to public transportation can influence not only the diversity of nature center visitors but also the diversity of nature center staff.

Thanks for answering, I have seen transportation as one of the biggest limitations for many different groups of people that would otherwise like to be in the environmental field. I'd like to know what were some of the benefits for the staff, nature centers and the interns as well?

Just out of curiosity, Emily, can you describe the visual impairment and sensory-related simulations you conducted with your workshop participants? Sounds like a great way to develop empathy.

And did you and Carly implement any other EE program "nuggets" not mentioned that us readers might benefit from?

Our brief simulation involved partners exploring the room and investigating sensory objects such as fidgets and plastic insect models with one person wearing glasses that simulated a type of visual impairment. We borrowed the glasses from our friends at the Wisconsin Lions Camp who use them during staff training.

Carly, Emily, Emily, and I had some good discussions amongst ourselves and with the people who attended our session about the pros and cons of disability simulations. Many disability-related organizations and agencies discourage use of simulations. For example, this year’s Indiana Disability Awareness Month ( curriculum states, “Activities that simulate a disability, such as being blind-folded or spending the day sitting in a wheelchair, should be avoided. These activities focus on what people with disabilities cannot do, rather than what they can do with appropriate access, technology or training. Also, because the simulated ‘impairment’ is only for a short period of time, it is difficult for participants to truly experience real limitation in a meaningful way.” A recent study of college students documented similar negative outcomes ( However, simulations can still be quite valuable for teaching professionals behavior management techniques and personal care skills without endangering actual program participants. So we decided to include a short simulation with time to debrief.

I am curious how other EE professionals view simulations and how common they are in our field. Please chime in!

Hi Darryl,

Thank you for inquiring, and for your response, Kendra! I am adding the descriptions of two scenarios that I incorporated during our workshop because they each included (1) a real teaching situation, (2) time to brainstorm "what would you do?", and (3) the perspectives/ first person suggestions from our Intern.

Scenario 1: Decomposers

During our August 2016 training day, we spent a few minutes in small groups thinking about how to be prepared to adapt a program for a person with sensory processing challenges.

Rach and I were in a small group together, and Rach immediately thought of the tactile discomfort associated with touching and/or smelling compost and the decomposers inside of the compost. During our Gardening programs, one or more stations involves doing so, and so Rach took us through this thought process: imagine walking with your group to a station where there is a small pile of compost laid out on a tarp. You see hand lenses, small plastic containers, and small spoons nearby to use as tools when investigating the decomposers. You freeze. How can your Educator(s) help you feel more comfortable?

Rach’s suggestions: first introduce a small, plastic model of a worm and/or another decomposer that you might find in the compost - the person may then be more comfortable touching a real worm and/or decomposer. Assist with spooning a smaller amount of compost into a container and invite the person to sit where they are comfortable before handing them a hand lens to explore the compost. You could also share a model of the life cycle of a plant from the garden and/or draw a picture of decomposer exploration on the white board if these other steps are uncomfortable for the participant.

Scenario 2: How to Approach a Person & Ask What They Need

Rach assisted me in performing this scenario during our August 2016 training day:

As an Educator, if you notice a person becoming upset/panicking (and you have prior knowledge from a Teacher/Parent/Guardian that they have sensory challenges), and they are not communicating with you, how can you effectively and respectfully approach them?

Rach’s suggestions: first ask, “Can I help you?”
Then, if they indicate “Yes” (verbally, head nod), ask if they can physically point to a resource that you have in your Sensory Kit that might help: for example, a weighted animal or blanket to drape across their shoulders if they are having a panic attack. If they cannot point, provide 2-3 options, one at a time.
Stay with the person, and check in on them a few minutes later.
(Alternately, if the person says “no,” begin to assess the situation as a First Responder.)
Follow up with the participants’ Teacher/Parent/Guardian after the program to explain what happened.

Thank you Carly, Emily and Kendra for sharing your personal insight and experience in developing and implementing EE programs for audiences with disabilities. You have just exposed the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but in this short time have encouraged us to think more deeply about what inclusion really means, not only in program development, but in being authentic in our efforts by going to the source...the audience to be served to listen intently and really hear about what they are saying and appreciate their current relationship with their environment and how they experience and process that understanding...and showing how important it is to dedicate the time, the resources and the funding to ensure inclusive decision-making takes place and that these EE experiences can be accessible to all.

Thank you also for being open to carrying on this conversation and serving as a resource people to our readers who may wish to contact you directly in the future! Best of luck in your efforts and thanks for the inspiration and resource references!

I've found lots of ways that a program can be designed or adapted to suit different abilities. The Phoenix Zoo has animal statues that anyone can touch. At the Arizona Natural History Museum, I man a hands-on cart, and I often adapt my presentation of it on the fly: once, I even met a guest who was blind and hard of hearing. I adapted by holding out fossils and their corresponding plastic models. However, my favorite example was a display of official state things at the Arizona State Capitol Museum. They included braille on the signage, including an image of each item, embossed in braille dots. How often do such measures occur?

Those are great examples! Thanks for sharing. I have often wondered about how widespread such programs and facilities are. As you note, so many modifications are made on the spot by individual instructors or interpreters and not documented. The most recent data I have for Wisconsin are attached. It is a flier I put together for a state-wide inclusion conference. The full report is available on the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education website. I hope you find them useful. Feel free to contact me if you have questions. I'm always excited to talk about inclusion!

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