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  • Charlinda Diaz

Poor Design Is Everywhere: My Visit To The Zoo



Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit a local zoo and, unbeknownst to me, I arrived during the zoo's Trick or Treat Halloween festivities! What could be better? The crowded pathways, costumed kids (and adults!), and the creepy decor created entertainment far beyond the exotic animals I came to see! It was obvious by the crowds that this event was a highlight for many people in the local community.

It warmed my heart to see an event that connected so many families together and engaged such a wide range of ages, family structures and abilities! Sadly, I quickly realized that the zoo was not designed to accommodate the needs for many of the individuals and families that come to the zoo.


The zoo truly is the PERFECT environment to implement Universal Design.

Universal design is meant to be basic, simple and user friendly for the widest variety of individuals possible... like the children, grandparents, expectant mothers, school class trips and those of various abilities who ALL enjoy visiting the zoo! Each of these populations presents unique needs and accessibility challenges when it comes to entrances, opening doors, managing bathrooms, using facilities, and safely getting around.

This means that the right type of design (IE. Universal Design) would create a better experience for those in strollers, wheelchairs, and every ability in-between!


Viewing the zoo through the lens of an Occupational Therapist:


Steep pathways and Uneven Surfaces: the pathways were certainly an adventure! The steep grading made it impossible for manual wheelchair users to independently and safely propel their chairs up and down the hills. The heavy breathing and reddened faces of expectant mothers pushing their strollers up vertical slopes brought feelings of concern. Washed out and disintegrating pavement and stone picnic areas created hazardous navigation at various points throughout the zoo.

Steeply graded pathways In-accessible picnic areas Uneven and eroding pavement


In-Accessible Entries: the video clip below is a classic example of the disconnect between ADA standards and practical accessibility. You will see that the initial entry door meets the ADA requirements but the second heavy entry door is manual. This means that wheelchair users can technically get into the building but will likely be stranded between the first entry door and the second entry door, just waiting for someone to help them fully enter the exotic bird habitat.




Poor Visibility: The animal habitats are encompassed by thick chain-link fencing that impedes visual observation from individuals in strollers and wheelchairs.


Stroller View Wheelchair View Standing View



Many of the glass observations areas are too high for small children to view into.

As with the penguin habitat pictured here, strollers or wheelchairs are unable to access closely the glass display to see and interact with the animals because of the stairway access.





The glare on the glass observations is poorly controlled making observation VERY difficult for those who are visually impaired as well as everybody else- especially during times of the day when the sun is brightest. Controlled lighting is so important for glare control and visibility for those with low vision. ---------->














Poorly furnished... literally. First, there is limited seating available for those who need to rest or tend to their children. Second, many of the seating options are not user friendly for seniors and children - no arm rests, slanted, cold and impractical heights.


One positive was the long rock slabs that have been incorporated. These long rectangular rocks are a smart way to incorporate landscape design into functionality. The seating that is high enough to sit on and low enough for those using a wheelchair to transfer onto to reposition and can be used as a table or stabilizing support while still low enough for great visibility!


Cold, Low and Slanted Seating Stone Slab Benches


Though not pictured, other points that could "bear" some improvement at the zoo would be: clearing slippery leaves from the pathways, widening bathroom spaces and improving setup for "accessible" bathroom stalls, creating user friendly changing stations for children and lowering the height of interactive learning elements so that children can engage independently of their parents.


Looking To The Future:

As time marches on, renovations and updates are certain to be a part of this zoo's future. Like any renovation project, there are a lot of factors to consider when planning and prioritizing renovation tasks and funds. From the perspective of an Occupational Therapist, important considerations would include:

  • Who will be using these facilities?

  • How will they be using the facilities?

  • What abilities and disabilities will these populations potentially present with? ex. abilities of children in specific age groups, challenges that those with disabilities may encounter, equipment that families and those with specialized needs may require.

  • What safety concerns must we consider for these populations identified?

  • What spatial planning is required and what type of assistive devices will need to be accommodated for?

  • Details to consider: floor surfaces, heights, weights, visibility, glare and equipment accessibility are details that impact quality of participation and enjoyment of the zoos various animal habitats and available facilities.


Ultimately, consult with an accessibility expert. Occupational therapists who specialize in environmental adaptations are an excellent resource for understanding human function and environmental planning needs of the variety populations (people) using these public spaces.




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