A Day at the Zoo

by Mark A. Trieglaff

Zoos and aquariums are popular sources of education and recreation for people of all ages. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association reported that its members had 134 million visitors in 1998. This total is greater than the attendance at all professional baseball, basketball and football games combined.

While zoos and aquariums are sources of enjoyment for many people, could a visit to the zoo be difficult for some individuals? Maybe even impossible? Can a person with a disability easily visit a zoo or aquarium? How can they know?

Many accessibility laws have helped increase accessibility at certain zoos and aquariums. Laws such as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, amended in 1978, prohibit any federal agency or agencies receiving federal funding from discriminating against or excluding people with disabilities from entering these facilities or participating in programming. Thus any zoo or aquarium receiving federal funds were required to meet accessibility standards as set by these laws.

Accessibility to both zoos and aquariums has increased even more thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a civil rights law for people with disabilities. Its basic intent is to eliminate discrimination against a person with a disability. One of the specific provisions of the ADA is to insure that public accommodations are accessible and zoos are listed as one example of accommodations required to be accessible. As a result a person with a disability should find a zoo or aquarium accessible or in the process of removing barriers. For many facilities, this will be a long process because of the age of their facilities and the cost to remove barriers. It would be important to preplan your visit. The extent of accessibility could help make or break your visit. In order to avoid potential problems when planning a visit to the zoo, you should take some time to gather information before your visit.  Some initial steps and ideas follow. 


A good and easy way to begin is to check the Internet site of the zoo or aquarium. The web page may provide some basic information about the zoo. More zoos are becoming aware of including accessibility information on the Internet. This is an easy place to get started.

If you do not have access to the internet, place a call to the zoo. When you call, ask if there is a person who is the Accessibility Coordinator. The Accessibility Coordinator should be able to answer your questions. The chances are there is not a single staff person with that exclusive responsibility for accessibility. If the zoo does not have an Accessibility Coordinator, the next step is to ask if there is a person that has knowledge of accessibility. With this question, you potentially are going to be in contact with many different people. You should stress a specific access issue (if possible). For example, if you use a wheelchair, the person that could answer questions about access of the facilities is from the Building and Grounds Department. If you have a visual impairment and are looking for adapted materials in Braille, large print, recordings, etc., consider contacting the Education Department or the specific animal buildings with handouts for their animal exhibits. Also request printed materials that could help facilitate your visit.

These materials could include:

Accessibility Maps - This map should provide all the general information about the institution. However, it should provide important accessibility information related to your disability. If you need it, request an alternate format such as large print. Some institutions have developed 3-D maps in Braille to assist people with more severe visual impairments.

Access Brochures - These brochures should provide a person with general accessibility information on auxiliary aids, programs, contact people, services and other access information. Typically, this brochure is helpful for people who are group leaders such as activity directors, special education instructors, group home staff, etc. 

Special Events - A special event brochure should have the events for the year. If you are interested in one particular special event, ask if they have a more detailed flyer or brochure. Ask for additional details about the special event location, activities, etc. While the event might not be able to be moved, other accommodations or options for your participation could be possible.

Educational Classes - All education departments will have a brochure or flyer about their upcoming classes. Typically, the classes are listed by seasons. If you decide that you would like to attend a specific class, call the instructor or leader about the requirements you have. Different auxiliary aids, changes in class location, adaptation of materials and/or information, etc. should be discussed. Some facilities are still learning about providing inclusive opportunities for programs. As a result, you might need to assist them with this process.

Group Rates - Many facilities have a group rate or reduced rate for people with disabilities. If they do not have a group or reduced rate, ask if there are any special priced days. Some institutions have free or reduced rate days. These special rates or days can sometimes save a substantial amount of money.


Besides requesting written information, there may be specific questions to assist in planning your visit, including:
  • Is there an accessible or an easy entrance into the zoo? Most zoos, museums, or aquariums have several entrances into their building or park. Some entrances can be very difficult because of terrain or the design of the building. Several older buildings have designed accessible entrances that might be away from the main entrance or main parking areas. Rather than hunting for the best place to enter, ask the staff members for their opinion and directions.
  • Are there accessible parking spaces by this entrance? Some entrances are still quite a distance from the accessible parking spaces. Try to find out which one is the best.
  • Is there a drop off area near an accessible or an easy entrance? If you are traveling with a friend who is driving, they might be able to drop you off near the entrance before they park. Dropping off first can cut down on your travel time and allow more energy for the rest of the day.
  • Another option may be public transportation that comes to or near an entrance. Some public bus systems will come right to a main entrance. Other systems such as a subway or train station might have a shuttle bus available to bring people to the institution.
  • Are certain days or times of the year busier than others? Some institutions can have 30 to 40 thousand people in one day. These days can be difficult for a person with a disability. Longer waits in lines, more people using auxiliary aids, harder to see exhibits, less of a chance to use interactive features, etc. can make for a long, tiring and sometimes frustrating day.
  • Most zoos cover many acres. If you are going to be walking consider planning your route by location of water fountains and benches. Ask if the map shows the location of water fountains? Most maps will show location of water fountains. These areas typically will have benches next to them or nearby
  • Are there special programs and/or demonstrations planned for the day you'd like to attend? Many free demonstrations occur during each day. Check to see if specific times are scheduled, where the activity is located, and if a reservation is needed. Some demonstrations might be limited by space and require a reservation.
  • Are there any places to touch or see animals up close? Specific areas might provide these opportunities. If you have a group, you might be able to schedule a specific time. For these types of programs or activities, try to do them early in the day. Late mornings and afternoons can get very crowded and make the experience more difficult.

Questions by Specific Disability

Asking these questions can help your visit start on the right foot. Many institutions are making great strides at increasing their facilities' accessibility. However, they might be very accessible for one type of disability and then very inaccessible for another. If you have specific accessibility needs, ask questions that answer your specific needs. Some questions by specific disabilities could include:

People with Physical and Mobility Impairments

  • What are the walkways like? Are there any areas that are rugged or hilly terrain? Are there shorter routes that allow me to see a lot of animals in a short distance?
  • How accessible are the exhibits? Some exhibits try to be natural such as a rough walkway, rocky or uneven surfaces, do you have any like that? If so, is there an easier route to see these animals? Some times there are a lot of plants and rock work in the way, Where are the best viewing areas to see from a wheelchair? Usually these viewing areas are good for a person who is shorter or for children too.
  • Do you have a transportation system that goes around the park? Am I able to get off at different areas to see those exhibits and then get on a later tram? Is the transportation wheelchair accessible?
  • Do you rent items that can help people get around the zoo, such as wheelchairs, strollers, wagons, or electronic convenience vehicles?

People with Visual Impairments

  • Are large print maps available? Where can I pick one up when I arrive?
  • Are handouts available in large print and Braille? Where can I pick one up when I arrive?
  • Is there a guidebook in alternate formats? Where can I pick one up when I arrive?
  • Are there tape recordings of the guide book and handouts?
  • Do you have recordings of animals and information about them? This might enhance the visit especially if recordings are at the specific exhibits.
  • Do you have a service animal policy? Some breeds of animals react very strongly to the presence of a dog or other animal. Special precautions are sometimes necessary to ensure the safety of the zoo's collection and the service animal itself.
  • Are there any animal statues or animals cutouts available to touch? Where are they located? These statues and cutouts provide people with an idea of size and shape of animals it might be difficult to see from a distance.
  • Are viewing windows at different exhibits? Many exhibits include viewing windows for easier viewing of animals. Some exhibits include heat coils near the windows that encourage animals to lay up close during cooler weather.

People with Hearing Impairments

  • Are assistive listening devices available for all narrated shows and tours? These devices will provide for more effective communication.
  • Are sign language interpreters already available? Or should I make an appointment with someone? If so, who?
  • Do you have a TTY available? Some facilities might have both public TTY's and ones that are used at a specific location like a switch board.


Many older couples enjoy a visit to the zoo. Sometimes, one of the spouses requires assistance to use a restroom. Ask if there are "family bathrooms" or unisex bathrooms available. These restroom facilities allow personal care assistance without creating a difficult or uncomfortable situation in the public washroom.

Other guests find these restroom useful as well. Family restrooms are useful for single parents or one parent with several children. Some groups, such as those with disabilities, might also need assistance in the restrooms. Many times the group leaders are of the opposite sex. Typical restroom facilities would make this situation difficult to supervise.

Some individuals or groups might have a variety of medical needs and require special equipment to enjoy their zoo visit. If you are visiting and have people with medical needs, it might be helpful to alert security of your visit. Many are trained emergency medical technicians (EMT) and can help in any type of medical situation. If you do not want to store the equipment in your vehicle, check with security about storing equipment in their first aid office.

Making a phone call and asking questions like the ones above should make visiting a zoo or aquarium more rewarding. A positive experience will allow you to enjoy the recreational and educational opportunities these institutions offer. You can then become a part of the growing group that enjoy a day at the zoo.

About the Author

Mark A. Trieglaff has worked for over 20 years with accessibility issues including the development of accessible programs, services and consultation on accessible design. Prior to joining LCM Architects, he was the access coordinator for the Brookfield (IL) Zoo. Trieglaff has developed and conducted numerous training programs on accessibility issues and has been involved at the national level promoting access features in public museums, aquariums and zoos.

About this Article

This article was edited for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, a collaborative project of the National Center on Accessibility, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. NCPAD is headquartered at the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago,1640 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL 60608-6904. NCPAD is funded by the Secondary Conditions Prevention Branch, Office on Disability and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.ncpad.org

The citation for this article is:

 Trieglaff, M. A day at the zoo. Indiana University-Bloomington: National Center on Accessibility. Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org.