The Cincinnati Zoo has embarked on a mission to become the most accessible zoo in America. Thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), we’re on our way to becoming a more welcoming, accessible, and inclusive zoo for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
To help us implement the needed changes, we have assembled an advisory council made up of 20 families that represent a full range of developmental disabilities. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, our partner in this endeavor, helped us identify and connect with the families.
The council has already proposed the addition of adult changing tables in Zoo restrooms and calming rooms for children with sensory stimulation issues. Cincinnati Children’s is training the Zoo’s full-time staff, seasonal employees, and volunteers, to better understand the needs of individuals with wide range of developmental disabilities so we can provide better engagement for them, and their families, at the Zoo. We will also test and evaluate what works and what doesn’t and share those results with others who can learn from our experience.
Successful businessman and philanthropist Charlie Shor can relate to the kinds of challenges the Zoo is trying to address. At twenty-five years old, he experienced his first seizure. Soon after, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disability that can cause seizures and unusual behavior. These episodes greatly affected his life and those close to him. He struggled with finding the right medication, medication addiction, and coping with the stress of building and running a business.
He needed a reboot to make life work again. In his case, this didn’t happen until retirement, but better late than never. Today he studies nutrition and diet solutions to help with epilepsy. And- thankfully, because of Charlie’s love of helping others, finding economic solutions for vulnerable and low-income populations, and therapeutic horseback riding, many are benefitting from his life’s second act.
Through a connection at the Zoo, Charlie learned that his love of animals and desire to serve families of those with disabilities could co-exist at the Zoo. Riding and caring for horses gives him perspective on his disability, and he knows the power that animals have to reduce stress and teach empathy for others.
It came to Charlie’s attention that some kids can’t afford to come to the Zoo. By making a gift to the Zoo’s Living Classroom Education Access Fund (LCEAF) from his foundation, he made it possible for low-income children to have an amazing Zoo experience — and one that they will remember for life.
Charlie saw an opportunity to do even more with his gift. He and others at the Charles L. Shor Foundation for Epilepsy Research understand the challenges that those with similar and different disabilities faced. Overstimulation, crowds, lack of quiet space — things that many enjoy about the Zoo — could make it a stressful place for those with a disability.
Today, Charlie is doing what he can to make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities. He funds an organization in Israel that uses horseback riding therapy and funds many epilepsy research organizations. Says Charlie, “those without disabilities often only look at you as if something is wrong with you. Kids with disabilities already look at themselves as lost. The social stigma makes it worse. They all ask the question, why did this happen to me?”
But he believes we can flip the script. Just because things like that can happen, doesn’t mean that other things can’t happen. The seizures could have kept him from being one of our region’s most successful businessmen. The Zoo could have seen efforts to accommodate and provide more access as too daunting. But none of these things happened. Charlie has been successful with epilepsy. Because of his generosity and resolve, he is helping others have success in many ways.
Charlie’s connection with horses reminds us of the health and well-being that respectful relationships with animals can have for each of us.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have or if others see you as powerful or popular. More important is that you accept others for who they are, and others accept you. This is our hope for this new program and those it will benefit. At the Zoo, we can all belong.