When my son was a baby, one of my favorite places to visit was Martin Park Nature Center. I loved being surrounded by trees, the sounds of the park, the water and wildlife. The wide, easy-to-navigate trails were the perfect place to walk with a stroller and enjoy a natural setting.
A few years later I met Jack McMahan, now a friend and colleague, who was instrumental in making Martin Park Nature Center more accessible. Jack uses a wheelchair and saw a need for trails following the principles of universal design, which create spaces people of all abilities can enjoy.
A national movement to make experiences and destinations accessible and inclusive for all has come to Oklahoma City, too. Numerous metro organizations are committed to removing barriers to participation for people and families with varied needs, making their programs and spaces available to all. These organizations are making great strides in serving the entire Oklahoma City community through engaging destinations for families with typical or special needs.
Lyric Theatre has been an Oklahoma City staple for more than 50 years with a drive to enrich the quality of life for all Oklahomans, including making productions available for families and those with special needs.
Lyric’s Theatre for Young Audiences initiative highlights a production specifically catered toward children each spring with sensory-friendly performances. Specially designed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other sensory-processing disorders and special needs, lighting and sound cues are more muted to ensure patrons enjoy the experience. Each production at Lyric includes an American Sign Language-interpreted performance, and assistive hearing devices are available.
The new 70-acre park in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City was designed with inclusion in mind, aptly described by its tagline “For Everyone.” ADA accessibility can be found through the park, including the pathways, water fountains and exercise stations, and directional signage throughout includes braille.
The unique children’s playground includes several pieces created for children of all abilities to enjoy, from a gravity disk to sand diggers and sand pits. Interactive fountains for play during warmer months are on grade-level with plenty of space to move around among the jets. Another popular water feature, the 3.7-acre lake, can be enjoyed by paddle boats, including one that is ADA accessible.
A longstanding Oklahoma City institution, Science Museum Oklahoma welcomes guests of all ages and abilities to ignite curiosity and experience the wonder of science. Recognizing the need to make visits comfortable for families or individuals with special needs, the museum has introduced sensory kits for visitors at no charge. The kits include earmuffs, a timer, gloves, sunglasses, fidget toys and printed copies of the museum’s sensory story and sensory-focused map.
New to the museum’s programming, sensory-sensitive family nights offer after-hours programming for those wishing to explore the museum in a quieter setting while still getting to participate in hands-on science.
Factory Obscura recently opened its first permanent exhibit, Mix-Tape, with the principles of universal design incorporated into the creative process, encouraging designers to think in new ways to ensure equitable participation. Light, sound, textures and interactivity are all part of the experience for visitors. Offering accessible parking and meeting ADA compliance were also key in the exhibit design.
OKCMOA has created a “culture of welcome” to help visitors of all abilities feel safe, supported and valued, making programs and public spaces accessible and inclusive by removing barriers that impede participation.
In addition to sighted guides and large-print labels for guests with low vision or who are blind and wheelchairs available for those with mobility challenges, the museum offers families with special needs opportunities to fully engage in the facility and collections.
A quiet space is available for those who need a break or calm space. In addition to discovery packs for kids, which include activities, books and sketching materials, the museum recently introduced sensory booster packs. Wiggle seats, noise-canceling headphones, fidgets and social narratives (visual stories describing socially appropriate responses and behaviors to help those with ASD gain social skills) are provided to give sensory-sensitive guests tools to enhance participation.
In June 2018, the Oklahoma City Zoo became certified by KultureCity as a sensory-inclusive zoo, the second certified attraction in Oklahoma to be recognized as a sensory-inclusive venue.
Zoo guests have access to complimentary sensory bags, including fidget toys and noise-canceling headphones, and weighted lap blankets. Signage and maps indicate quiet and headphone zones for those feeling overwhelmed. Through a partnership with Dean McGee Eye Institute, free binoculars are available to enhance guests’ experiences.
The first Friday of June each year marks Dreamnight, an event hosted by the zoo for children with special healthcare needs to enjoy a cost-free night with their families.
Last year, the Myriad Botanical Gardens installed accessible play equipment in the Children’s Garden, allowing children of all abilities to know the joy of play and experience the outdoor space. The Myriad Gardens is the only public space in Oklahoma with an AbilityWhirl, making merry-go-round play accessible to all kids. A We-saw™, a new take on the traditional seesaw with a gentle rocking motion, invites individuals of all ages and abilities to take a ride. The Arch Swing offers accessible, calming swinging for up to five children at a time.
Through community engagement programs and accessible performances, the Oklahoma City Ballet strives to bring the art form to individuals of all abilities. An adaptive dance program called Chance to Dance welcomes children ages 8 to 12 with varying levels of capabilities to experience the joy of dancing. OKC Ballet performances are held at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, an ADA compliant building with seating options for those who need accessible seating. Every effort is made to accommodate special requests to enhance inclusivity and accessibility.
With its new location opening March 2020, Oklahoma Contemporary will remain committed to making the arts available to everyone. The studios, galleries and community spaces are designed to be accessible to families with different abilities and learning styles. Through the organization’s veterans initiative, staff gained experience creating adaptive spaces for people of varying abilities and mobility and have incorporated the lessons learned into the new space.
Using universal design principles, the new facility will feature an early childhood studio so young visitors and their caregivers can learn and create in an inclusive space. Kids and families
of all abilities are welcome to all experiences and programs to make open-ended art and connect with peers.
Editor’s note: If you and your family have enjoyed an inclusive and accessible metro experience or destination, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or tagging #okcfamilyfun on social media. Heather White is a music educator, art teacher and inclusion specialist, working with cultural institutions to design programs and spaces that are accessible and inclusive.