Out, About and Inclusive In L.A.

By Christina Elston

accessible los angeles

At the Festival of Human Abilities at Aquarium of the Pacific, visitors of all abilities enjoy workshops – many taught by artists with disabilities. PHOTO COURTESY AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC

There was a time when “accessible” meant someone with a disability could get in the front door, and maybe up to the second floor – and after that they were on their own.

These days, accessibility goes way beyond that, and many L.A. attractions are making it part of their mission. “Accessibility is more than just adding a ramp,” says Peter Martineau, marketing events manager at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

By the Sea

Lots of family attractions and cultural institutions – even cities – are becoming more inclusive of those with disabilities. “Inclusion is one of the city council’s strategic priorities and an integral component of Santa Monica values,” says Mayor Ted Winterer.

The city opened its first universally accessible playground, South Beach Park Playground, in 2013 and plans to construct another this year. Santa Monica also has installed wooden walkways that help people who use wheelchairs get closer to the ocean. One of those is at Annenberg Community Beach House, which also boasts an accessible play area and manual beach wheelchairs for those who want to get onto the sand. Electric and manual beach wheelchairs are also available free at Perry’s Café (www.perryscafe.com).

Just down Ocean Avenue from the Beach House is Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, where the staff works with visitors one-on-one to create an inclusive experience. “Our staff and volunteers are really well informed and they love to talk with our visitors,” says Outreach Manager Randi Parent. “It’s one of our selling points here.”

The aquarium is open to the public Tuesday through Friday afternoons and weekends, and offers touch tanks and marine artifacts for what Parent calls “a very tactile experience.” For visitors in wheelchairs, staff can sometimes place one of the touch tank animals in a smaller tub to bring it within touchable range. For the visually impaired, staff are happy to explain one-on-one about the animal or artifact they are touching.

More Animal Encounters

accessible los angeles

Santa Monica Pier Aquarium staff member Taylor Spesak helps a visitor get up close and personal with a selection of the marine center’s tide pool animals. PHOTO COURTESY SANTA MONICA PIER AQUARIUM

Down in Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific offers self-guided audio tours for blind visitors to check out, scripts for all aquarium presentations for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, and closed-captioned exhibit videos. With four days advance notice, the aquarium can provide an ASL interpreter free of charge.

Aquarium of the Pacific also celebrates people with disabilities through special events. During twice-yearly Autism Families Nights and the annual Abilities Night, the aquarium is open only to people with disabilities and their families. The aquarium’s biggest event for people with disabilities, however, is the Festival of Human Abilities, featuring visual and performing artists, classes, demonstrations, workshops and resources.

At the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Kirin Daugharty, manager of volunteer programs, recommends that visitors with disabilities book a tour with one of the zoo’s knowledgeable docents two weeks in advance. “We can tailor any tour to meet anybody’s needs,” she says.

“There are quite a few docents who have special-needs training,” Daugharty says. Some are retired teachers, others have coached for Special Olympics. Many are experienced working with children with autism. ASL interpreters are also available.

For blind visitors, docents bring out bones, pelts and other items to touch and stop to visit “touchable” animals. Life-size animal statues throughout the zoo offer another tactile opportunity, and docents take visitors to the bird feeder area, which Daugharty says “has a real audio element.”

The zoo also has wheelchairs and assistive-listening devices available. Wheelchair-accessible trams take visitors to the top of the zoo’s hilly terrain, and an accessibility information map online helps visitors find downhill routes.

A Little Flora

If plants are your family’s passion, visit the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA. Not all of the garden is wheelchair accessible because some of the terrain is rough, but there is a set of navigable pathways. “A person can have a perfectly good one-hour tour here in a wheelchair,” Director of Programs Wendy Morris says.

For visitors with other types of disabilities, docents design custom tours. “If somebody has a need, we’ll figure it out,” says Morris. “We enjoy being asked for special tours.” Call a month in advance to discuss the tour you would like. The minimum number for tours is usually eight people, but they will make exceptions when possible.

Morris says printed information could be put together for a tour for someone who was deaf or hard of hearing, and for one recent visitor who was blind, “we designed a special tour that concentrated on plants with textures and aromas.”

Exploring Art 

accessible los angeles

Tour guides at the Norton Simon Museum use touchable elements to help visually impaired visitors connect with the art. PHOTO COURTESY NORTON SIMON MUSEUM

Art museums are also reaching out to people of all abilities. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has an audio guide of more than 400 stops (in English and Spanish) available as an easy-to-use script-based iPad app. The 30-minute orientation film on the life of Norton Simon is presented with open captioning (in English) and assisted-listening devices are available in the theater and on most tours.

The museum also offers free guided tours for schools and other large groups with disabilities, and also accommodates families.  “We don’t have programs just for an individual family, per se,” says museum Director of External Affairs Leslie Denk, “but if a family with special needs has any questions or special requests, we encourage them to contact the Education Department in advance of their visit or notify a manager upon arrival.”

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art takes a “mainstreaming” approach to accommodating disabilities – especially during Andell Family Sundays, says LACMA’s Head of Education Jane Burrell. “If a family came with a child with a disability, we would accommodate that child to participate along with everyone else.”


Instructors might give a child with autism extra space or extra attention as needed, help a child in a wheelchair access the art table at workshops, or give a more descriptive tour to include a visitor who is blind. “They would use descriptive language to bring a painting to life,” Burrell says. Tour guides also carry bags filled with touchable items that might include a piece of marble or canvas.

LACMA tour guides and teaching artists undergo training to assist them in welcoming visitors with disabilities. And a partnership with Cal State Northridge to supply ASL interpreters is in the works.

In the Ark

Mainstreaming is also the approach the Skirball Cultural Center takes in its Noah’s Ark attraction. Sensory backpacks filled with noise-dampening headphones, stims and fidgets are offered for visitors with sensory issues. “We are easily able to pull out one of these backpacks and talk to the caregiver and show them what we have inside,” says Nina Silver, Head of Noah’s Ark . They also have weighted blankets and vests.

For blind visitors, staff can point out tactile and audio-rich parts of the ark or engage them with touchable puppets. Two staff members are fluent in ASL, so many story times are interpreted and Tuesday sing-alongs for toddlers always include a song with sign language.

All concerts, story times and other programs are conducted with regular lighting and the opportunity for visitors to move around and come and go as they please.  “We are completely all set to go for having your kid, whatever their ability, in our space,” Silver says.

A Little History

accessible los angeles

Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association Docent Vicki Defalque shares touchable elements with zoo visitors. These can enhance tours for the visually impaired. PHOTO BY JAMIE PHAM

Over at the International Printing Museum in Carson, Theater Manager Phil Soinsky (who regularly appears in costume as Benjamin Franklin) says the museum’s tours for schools and other large groups are adaptable for different disabilities. “All of our shows can be customized, from third grade on up to adults,” he says.

For families, he says Saturdays are the time to visit (and that calling a week in advance is a good idea). The museum offers a one-hour tour plus hands-on printing activities. “Most museums won’t let you touch their exhibits,” says Soinsky. “We encourage you to operate ours.” Feeling the letters of their name set in type can be a fun, tactile experience for a visually impaired child.

While the printing museum is wheelchair accessible, history isn’t always wheelchair friendly, says Fillmore & Western Railway co-owner Tresa Wilkinson. “All these [train] cars are older cars, and the doors and the aisle ways weren’t built for wheelchairs,” she explains.

Staff will help visitors who use collapsible wheelchairs stow them on board if the person using the wheelchair is able to get aboard and be seated. Weekday rides, she says, tend to be less crowded and so easier for those with disabilities. They are also happy to seat those with autism or sensory issues near the back of the car where it is less crowded. And for those planning to take one of the popular holiday rides with Santa, the railway has one Santa fluent in ASL and riders who call in advance can reserve space on his train.

If there is something else railway staff can do for you, just ask. “If they let us know what their needs are, we’ll absolutely try to help them,” Wilkinson says.

The Queen Mary in Long Beach also faced challenges with wheelchair accessibility – especially in the bow and engine rooms. Visitors now can tour these areas virtually. “We’ve had very high quality films created with expert narration,” says Brian Luallen, director of attractions for the historic ship. These are screened free of charge on the Promenade deck, and include closed captioning. Individual closed-captioning devices are also available in the ship’s 4-D theater.

The Queen Mary offers Braille guides with descriptive text for the visually impaired, and can provide extra guides if needed to assist visitors with developmental disabilities. And the ship is developing a partnership with a local community college so that, beginning this summer, ASL interpretation will be free to visitors on certain days each week.

The ultimate goal is for all visitors to have what Luallen calls “a truly equal experience.”

That goal is shared by most museums, aquariums, theme parks, historic spots and other attractions around L.A., and this is far from a complete list. Checking web sites, including those for places mentioned in this article, is a good place to start if you are planning to visit with a family member with a disability. But if you don’t find accessibility information there, do call and ask. Not every place can meet every need, but most are willing to try.

Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.

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