When you think about what defines an animal sanctuary, there are probably a lot of words, images, practices, and principles that come to mind. At its most basic, however, an animal sanctuary is/should be a safe space – not just for the nonhuman community members who reside there, but for the human community members who participate there as well. When we consider what it means to be a safe place for everyone, it’s important that animal sanctuaries specifically consider the experiences of folks with physical disabilities. Since the experience of folks with physical disabilities is regrettably often one of dealing with various types of barriers – physical, linguistic, ideological, financial, etc. – an important question for sanctuaries to ask themselves is how they could help address and remove those barriers. In continuation of our ongoing series on sanctuary accessibility, we’ve developed this resource to help animal sanctuaries do just that! By the time you finish reading this resource, our hope is that you’ll have a better understanding of some of the best practices, accommodations, and principles you can integrate into your spaces and educational programming to make your sanctuary as welcoming and inclusive as possible to folks with physical disabilities.
What Does the Term “Physical Disability” Mean?
The experiences of folks with physical disabilities are highly individualized and diverse. While there is no universally accepted definition of physical disability that is shared across all people, in general, it’s defined as a physical impairment that significantly impacts some aspect of a person’s functioning, either temporarily, periodically, or permanently, related to their mobility, dexterity, or stamina (e.g., walking, climbing stairs, reaching, carrying, lifting, speaking, and more). Physical disabilities can be visible or invisible, and genetic or acquired through accident, injury, illness, environmental factors, or as a side effect of a specific medical condition. Some examples include, but are not limited to, disabilities related to musculoskeletal injuries, amputations, spinal cord injuries, strokes, and chronic diseases and illnesses such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, epilepsy, asthma, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Some folks with physical disabilities utilize assistive equipment and mobility aids such as wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, canes, augmentative or alternative communication devices, prosthetics, and guide dogs to help them perform daily tasks, but many do not.
Why Accessibility is Important
Accessibility is the Law
The Americans with Disabilities Act (The Americans With Disabilities Act, a law that governs accessibility requirements for organizations in the United States.) is a law that defines disability as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and thus, is intended to prevent discrimination against people who have physical disabilities. This means if you are operating an animal sanctuary within the United States that has been granted 501(c)3 status, has 15 or more employees, and/or is open to the public, you are required to comply with ADA accessibility standards to make your space, services, and programs more accessible to folks with physical disabilities. ADA regulations are complex, however, so we encourage your sanctuary to consult with an attorney for more information on how the ADA applies to your specific organization. ADA requirements are also the minimum standard and we would advise animal sanctuaries to go far beyond the accommodations, policies, and practices required by federal law by partnering with people with physical disabilities and organizations that serve people with physical disabilities to achieve optimal accessibility and inclusive design in their spaces and programming whenever possible.
Accessibility is the Right Thing to Do
Beyond the legal requirement, ensuring compliance with ADA and inclusive design standards also means your organization is creating a more welcoming space for more people. If we understand disability as a mismatch between someone and their environment, we not only recognize that it’s the disabling environment that prevents the person from doing or accessing something, but that disability is also something that everyone experiences at some point throughout their life, whether it be permanent, temporary, or situational. In this way, accessibility can be thought of as an ongoing process of working towards finding solutions to disabling environments so that we can include more people in our spaces in more meaningful ways. Accessibility benefits everyone.
Partnering with Individuals with Physical Disabilities and Organizations that Serve Individuals with Physical Disabilities
Before we dive more into the potential accommodations, practices, and policies your sanctuary can implement into its spaces and educational programming, we want to emphasize the importance of including people with physical disabilities and their representatives (e.g., community-based organizations that provide disability services, personal assistants, caregivers, friends, family members, etc.) in your planning, development, implementation, and evaluation processes. There are several reasons for this. While it might seem obvious to some folks, partnering with physically disabled folks in the planning, implementation, and evaluation processes of your sanctuary’s spaces and educational programming is one of the most meaningful ways you can be a more welcoming and inclusive organization. Second, in order to make your programs as effective and accessible as possible and ensure ongoing participation, your team needs to be aware of the specific needs known to and understood by people with physical disabilities that may be unknown to and/or misunderstood by program planners without physical disabilities. If you do not know anyone in your immediate community who is physically disabled and interested in collaborating with your sanctuary, we recommend contacting organizations in your community that serve people with physical disabilities, such as state Independent Living Centers and disability resources centers.
Onsite Accessibility for Folks with Physical Disabilities
There are a lot of accommodations, services, and technologies that sanctuaries can incorporate and build into their onsite spaces, educational programs, and budgets that would make them more accessible and inclusive of folks with physical disabilities. Let’s take a look at some of them!
Environmental accommodations may include physical adjustments to your sanctuary space(s) that improve accessibility and safety for everyone, but particularly for folks with physical disabilities. It is of the utmost importance to make sure all of your staff members and volunteers are well informed and trained on your organization’s established accessibility features, policies, and practices so that everyone knows their responsibility and can be held accountable for creating and upholding as safe and welcoming an environment as possible.
Make sure any necessary information such as services and points of interest within your sanctuary (e.g., parking, reception, visitor centers, restrooms, phones, exits, etc.), can easily be read and identified with disability access symbols so folks with physical disabilities are aware of what is accessible to them. The services and points of interests dedicated to folks with physical disabilities are typically identified with the wheelchair logo. With clear signage that utilizes disability access symbols and is placed at an appropriate height and positioned so it does not create an obstacle for people to navigate around, physically disabled folks can find their way around your sanctuary more safely and independently.
Folks with physical disabilities should have access to parking spaces that are closest to wherever they need to go when they first arrive (e.g., visitor center, administrative building, medical center, etc,). They should be readily visible with horizontal and vertical signage. Please be mindful and build extra room into these parking spaces to allow folks who use wheelchairs or any other mobility aids to put their vehicle ramps down and get off safely without having to go into the flow of any kind of traffic. According to ADA regulations, standard accessible parking spaces should be at least 96 inches wide and there should be a 60-inch access aisle adjacent to the parking space that leads to an access ramp or accessible entryway. One access aisle can be shared by two accessible parking spaces.
An accessible sanctuary enables folks with physical disabilities to get around as easily as possible, so consider creating pathways at your sanctuary that utilize:
- Smooth, relatively flat, and slip-resistant surfaces. Paths do not have to be paved to be accessible, but it’s important that the surface material you use on your paths is safe for folks who use assistive equipment like wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers. You should also ensure pathways are wide enough for wheelchair users to move without any difficulties.
- Straight lines and clear corners. Curvy paths can be burdensome for some folks with physical disabilities.
- Continuous handrails for additional support.
- Obstacle-free routes. Keep holes, trees, plants, trashcans, cars, equipment, and any other objects out of pathways as much as possible when they are in use.
You might consider installing and utilizing permanent and/or removable ramps instead of or in addition to any stairs that are located on your sanctuary’s property. According to ADA requirements, access ramps must be a minimum of 36 inches wide, have top and bottom landings that are as wide as the ramp itself and at least 60 inches long, and have a slope that is no greater than 1:12, or one foot in elevation change for every 12 feet of ramp.
Expand all doorways (at least three feet wide) whenever possible to avoid potential bottlenecks and allow folks comfortable passage. This is particularly helpful for folks who utilize wheelchairs. It’s also helpful to replace door knobs with levers and make sure any entrance doors are not too heavy for someone to open. Utilizing a door knob requires a tight grasp and a twist, which can be particularly challenging for folks with arthritis or anyone who has difficulty with dexterity. Using a lever, on the other hand, is much easier, since you only have to push down. We also recommend placing non-slip mats that are wheelchair-accessible at all entrance doors throughout your sanctuary.
Ensure restrooms are large enough for folks who use assistive equipment like wheelchairs to comfortably get inside, access the toilet and sink, turn around, and leave. Typically, this requires about six feet of turn around space. You should also install a lowered sink and counter for hand washing, a higher toilet seat, and grab bars on the wall closest to the toilet and behind the toilet.
An accessible sanctuary enables all folks, but particularly folks with physical disabilities, to take breaks in places that do not require going completely off the path, so consider designing rest areas at your sanctuary that utilize:
- Tables with the wheelchair-cutout in the middle instead of on the end
- Water fountains. While not widely used and a bit more costly, we recommend installing water fountains that have hand pumps and foot pedals whenever possible.
Reception Areas and Visitor Centers
Consider installing lowered counters in these areas for wheelchair users to see and be seen by your sanctuary’s staff and volunteers. It’s also super helpful to space any furniture located in these areas in a way that folks who utilize assistive equipment can get around easily.
Many folks with physical disabilities utilize assistive equipment and mobility aids to get around more easily and safely. These folks may prefer to use these aids independently or with some assistance. Needs and preferences look different for everyone and they can change from day to day and place to place! Assistive equipment and mobility aids can include human assistants, wheelchairs, guide dogs, canes, crutches, walkers, scooters, and augmentative or alternative communication devices for folks whose physical disability has impacted their speech.
For many disabled folks, taking tours of public spaces that do not take their needs into consideration makes them feel excluded. However, there are many ways that animal sanctuaries can facilitate educational tours that are more inclusive of and enjoyable for folks with physical disabilities. Let’s explore some of them!
Route and Pace
We recommend working with each group or individual who has a physical disability prior to the start of any tour to determine what they need and what you can offer them. In particular, it’s helpful to predetermine what route and pace is most appropriate and comfortable for them and make adjustments as needed throughout the visit. Starting off a tour with, “Let me know if you need a break”, can go a very long way in making folks feel safe and included at your sanctuary. Generally speaking, folks with physical disabilities find shorter, slower, more attentive experiences that enable them to stop and ask questions to be more enjoyable. As you walk, please also be very careful to let folks with physical disabilities know when there is an obstacle, such as a dip, bump, rock, or gate, along the path.
Navigation apps like “Evelity” can help folks with physical disabilities find their way around new and complex environments, such as your sanctuary, more comfortably and independently. In addition to providing supplemental information about pre-specified areas, the app can also provide optimized routes, such as stair-free pathways, for more self-guided tours.
Sometimes, animal sanctuaries offer meaningful opportunities for certain residents to meet and connect with visitors inside their The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.. When appropriate and safe for visitors and residents, the same opportunity can be offered to folks with physical disabilities as well. However, for safety purposes, it might be worth creating and designating a space outside of a resident living area where a trained staff member can bring one of the residents to physically disabled folks and allow them to meet and connect. Please take extra care determining if and with whom this might be appropriate. For starters, you should not allow overly enthusiastic residents to run up to visitors right away and put their head in their lap. This can be overwhelming and unsafe for anyone, but particularly for individuals with physical disabilities. You should also be mindful of certain species and nonhuman individuals who find some types of human assistive equipment, like wheelchairs and scooters, to be incredibly threatening and react accordingly (read: unsafely). In this case, you might consider choosing a resident who has an especially gentle disposition, can be haltered and walk up to people slowly, doesn’t mind being touched, and is not afraid of any assistive equipment. For example, if you have a chicken who really likes interacting with visitors and being held, a trained staff member might hold the chicken in their arms or lap and then invite the physically disabled person to gently touch them and feel their warmth.
When direct experiences with residents are not appropriate or safe, we recommend inviting participants to connect with your sanctuary and its residents through other sensory experiences. Think about tactile things your sanctuary could allow visitors to explore with their eyes, ears, nose, and hands like sheared wool/fiber, a trimmed pig tusk, molten feathers, hay, straw, barn siding, and more!
Folks with physical disabilities are at higher risk during emergency situations, particularly if there are any stairs, rough terrain, or inaccessible building exits involved in evacuation procedures. Here are some questions related to emergency situations that we recommend your sanctuary carefully review as it considers the needs of folks with physical disabilities: Does your sanctuary have a procedure in place for visitors, staff members, and volunteers who may need a personal emergency evaluation plan (PEEP), such as wheelchair users? Do you have a safe and ready-to-use evacuation chair available on your property? Who is responsible for making sure these procedures are put into place, reviewed regularly, and completed correctly? Are your community’s fire marshals aware of any sanctuary employees who have PEEPs? How are visitors, staff members, and volunteers notified that an emergency evacuation needs to take place? If an employee with a disability discovered a fire or a need for evacuation, would they be able to raise your sanctuary’s alarm safely and independently?
Specific requests and accessibility accommodations that are not already incorporated into your sanctuary’s spaces and programming can pop up quite frequently during visitor experiences at animal sanctuaries. For this reason, it’s important that your organization put a policy in place to allow for people with disabilities to request a modification. This policy should include a clearly written procedure that is made available in all of your sanctuary’s marketing materials (e.g., website) for folks to utilize in advance of their visit, as well as staff and volunteer training on how to appropriately interact with folks with physical disabilities and accommodate their requests onsite. If your organization determines it is unable to accommodate a specific request, it’s important to inform the person who inquired about it as soon as possible and take time to discuss any other potential supports, accommodations, or requests that you can offer them instead. While we encourage your sanctuary to plan and prepare for accessibility accommodations in advance as much as possible, some spaces and programs will need to be modified for people with physical disabilities “on-the-fly”. Remember, flexibility in program facilitation is critical!
Outreach and Marketing of Accessible Facilities, Programs, and Activities
One of the most important parts of implementing more accessibility into your sanctuary’s space and programming is promoting it! You can do this through your website, social media channels, media outlets, community partners, and more to showcase as widely as possible any particular accommodations, practices, policies, facilities, programs, features, and services that your sanctuary offers folks with physical disabilities. Here are some practices and features we recommend you include in your sanctuary’s marketing:
- Accessibility content on your website should be easy for folks to find and include the contact information of a person within your organization who can answer questions regarding your sanctuary’s accessibility and discuss any needs and concerns in advance of a visit.
- “Accessible” for some does not mean accessible for all, so it’s incredibly helpful to list specific accessibility features and services in your marketing materials that your sanctuary can offer folks. Doing so enables folks to decide in advance whether they can have a safe and enjoyable experience at your sanctuary. For example, if your sanctuary offers educational tours, rather than identifying that tour as simply “accessible”, you should include specific information about the tour’s pathway, such as, “Our educational tour follows along a path that is approximately one mile long and has the following access features: railings, is at least 36 inches wide, braille signage, has a smooth surface [identify material], no slope greater than 2%, and benches are at 350-foot intervals”.
- Your organization’s accessibility and/or inclusion/DEIJ statement along with your modifications policy such as, “Our sanctuary is committed to inclusive programming wherever possible. Specific requests and accommodations are often possible if requested in advance. For more information and/or to place a specific request, please contact [contact name at your sanctuary]”.
- Educational program agendas that include start and end times, the content that will be covered, and what visitors can expect throughout the course of the program or visit.
- The cost of program participation that ensures affordability for disabled people, their families, and personal care workers whenever possible. We highly recommend waiving program fees for personal care workers, as this is a common barrier disabled folks face and is considered a reasonable accommodation.
- Information about transportation to your sanctuary, which should include possible routes from central locations in your region, any potential accessible public and private transportation options and schedules (e.g., buses, light rail, subway, paratransit services) that serve your sanctuary’s location, and road conditions
- Detailed information on varied terrain and changing seasonal conditions at your sanctuary, such as muddy or slippery areas, and obstacles and barriers such as stairs, rocks, downed trees, large operations equipment, vehicles, etc.
- Information on the number of accessible parking spots and available amenities on your sanctuary’s property such as accessible restrooms, ramps, potable water stations, and places to rest (e.g., benches, tables, logs)
- Availability of cell phone and/or internet service
- It might also be helpful to demonstrate your sanctuary’s accessibility practices, features, and services through imagery that showcases the inclusion and participation of people with physical disabilities in your spaces and programming, so as long as the individuals in the imagery fully consent to being included in this way. Demonstrating your sanctuary’s accessibility practices and programs visually can help people with physical disabilities understand that your sanctuary’s community, space, and programming are committed to their inclusion.
Workplace Inclusion for Sanctuary Employees with Physical Disabilities
As an employer, it is your responsibility to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for employees with physical disabilities. This means providing them with equal employment opportunities to participate in the application and interview processes, communicate effectively in the work space, have access to the resources they need to succeed in their position, have access to facilities or portions of facilities to which all employees are given access (e.g., restrooms, lunch rooms, etc.), attain the same level of performance as other employees in the same position, participate in trainings, meetings, professional development opportunities, and social events, and enjoy all the other benefits of employment at your sanctuary. Please remember that accessibility looks different for everyone and communication preferences and needs vary depending on the setting and the individual so it’s important to maintain an ongoing dialogue with employees who have physical disabilities. Primary consideration should always be given to the individual’s preference. By law, you are not required to provide physically disabled employees with personal devices (e.g., wheelchairs) or accommodations that would result in the removal of an essential job duty, violation of job-related conduct rules, or an undue hardship to your organization (e.g., cost). If you determine that the cost of a specific accommodation would cause your organization an undue hardship, please try reaching out to your state vocational agencies and disability organizations to see whether they can help offset some of the expenses. There are also federal tax credits and deductions available in many states.
In addition to the accommodations, services, technologies, and practices we listed in the previous sections of this resource for onsite visitors, most of which should also be extended to sanctuary employees, the information below is a list of more accommodations, services, technologies, and practices you can build into your sanctuary workspace(s) that are specifically for staff members with physical disabilities.
Prospective Employee Considerations
- When sending out job listings, tell prospective employees that you are looking to receive applications from those with disabilities, including those with invisible disabilities. Be specific: “We know a lot of disabilities are actually invisible and we are open to creating additional policies, procedures, and accommodations to help you”.
- Always communicate to prospective employees any specific accessibility policies, practices, features, and services your sanctuary offers.
- Allow potential employees who are physically disabled to take a tour of your sanctuary’s spaces.
- Probably the most important thing your sanctuary can do is maintain an open dialogue with staff members who have physical disabilities and honor their preferences and needs to the best of your ability.
- If requested, provide folks with physical disabilities a modified work schedule, permission to work from home, additional time off, and varying job activities and tasks. Many disabilities are dynamic, meaning a person’s needs can change from day to day or even hour to hour, so creating a work schedule that is safe and flexible is critical! Staff cross training can come in really handy in situations like this. Instead of framing inconsistent employee capabilities as a limitation, try and frame it as an opportunity for folks to learn and offer something new to your sanctuary. For example, if a sanctuary Someone who provides daily care, specifically for animal residents at an animal sanctuary, shelter, or rescue. cannot perform their usual care-related tasks, consider offering them some less physically-demanding tasks such as administrative or marketing and outreach tasks instead.
- Encourage your staff to rest when they need to! Setting up a cot or small couch for folks to lie down on can go a long way in ensuring the health and safety of your team, particularly for folks who work outside and in extreme temperatures.
- In general, all employee pathways, buildings, entrances, and exits should be well-lit, stair-free, and barrier-free. If there are multiple floors in a building that does not have an access ramp or elevator, please make sure employees who cannot use stairs have an adequate workspace with their team members on the ground floor.
- All documents, resources, and assistive workplace technologies and devices should be as physically accessible as possible.
- Some assistive technologies and devices to familiarize yourself with and potentially provide your employees include one-handed keyboards, ergonomic mouses, height-adjustable or standing desks, and ergonomic desk chairs.
- All outlets, light switches, and other controls should be within manageable reach, particularly for folks who use wheelchairs.
- Make sure staff kitchens and bathrooms have countertops that are at an appropriately accessible height for everyone.
- If necessary, make modifications to allow guide dogs a safe space in your workplace.
Additional Emergency Accommodations
- Walk through emergency evacuation routes during employee orientations and trainings.
- When appropriate and necessary, establish a buddy system by designating a non-physically disabled person with a physically disabled person during emergency situations.
- Concerns about not being able to safely get away from potentially dangerous animals or farm equipment that are prevalent on many sanctuary properties are important to take into consideration. It might be beneficial to create a liability waiver for staff members and volunteers if you haven’t already done so to acknowledge there is going to be risk associated with sanctuary work and that each party is trying to do everything they can to mitigate that risk.
Workplace Attitudes and Communication Considerations
Regarding appropriate workplace arrangements, another one of the most important things your sanctuary can do to nurture as welcoming and safe an atmosphere as possible is ensure all staff members are given the tools and knowledge to feel confident interacting with, communicating with, and supporting disabled people. This means articulating and upholding accessibility and inclusion as key values of your organization. This also means hiring disabled people and disability advocacy organizations to train your staff (and board!) on disability history, disability awareness (including awareness and biases around invisible disabilities!), disability justice, disability inclusion and accessibility, respectful language, and any policies and procedures for accessibility accommodations that your sanctuary has in place.
Program evaluation research is one of the most meaningful ways to determine how you can improve your sanctuary’s space and educational programming and as such, should seek to include input and feedback from community members who have physical disabilities. Developing a strong understanding of folks with physical disabilities who visit and work in your space is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that you are providing a welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment. This research might look like a survey given at the end of an educational program or to an employee that says something such as, “We’re doing our best with what we know and we’d love to know one thing that we can do better. What’s one thing that we can do to make your next visit even better and more welcoming?”. This might also look like developing an entire task force at your sanctuary that is dedicated to evaluating your sanctuary’s spaces and educational programs to determine what needs to change to make them more accessible. Your task force could include physically disabled and non-physically disabled staff members, other sanctuary folks, folks in your wider community, local organizations that serve disabled people, public schools, long-term care providers, veterans organizations, and more. You might consider arranging a group tour with these folks to connect more closely, exchange ideas, get input for short-term and long-term plans, and explore potential opportunities for further collaboration together. The most important aspect of this research is what you do with the results, so make sure you are following through with your intentions by developing a plan to make your sanctuary as welcoming as possible based on what folks are reasonably asking for.
As you can see, achieving accessibility is an ongoing process that requires a lot of sustained effort, but we believe the sanctuary community is up for the challenge. Everyone deserves to feel safe and included. As a matter of rounding out this resource, we’d like to provide you with some action steps your sanctuary can consider now:
- As your sanctuary is developing or refining an organizational statement on DEIJ, accessibility, and inclusion, it’s important to specifically consider and write a statement that includes folks with physical disabilities in it.
- Hold staff training sessions to learn about and discuss disability history, awareness, accessibility, justice, and inclusion.
- Accessibility for folks with physical disabilities should be prominently included in the planning phases of your sanctuary’s infrastructure and educational programming. Reach out to local disability service organizations and advocates to guide the development of your sanctuary’s spaces and educational programming. Remember to compensate people appropriately!
- Disabled people should serve as board members, staff members, volunteers, and interns at your sanctuary. Check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment to connect with folks who are physically disabled and potentially interested in working for your organization.
- If you are just starting out, try to take a more holistic approach to disability accessibility by looking into Universal Design and building inclusion into your sanctuary’s budget and programming. Some accommodations will be fairly easy and low cost to implement (e.g., replacing doorknobs with levers), while others with take more careful planning, time, and resources (e.g., removing steps and narrow doorways) – and that’s ok! Accessibility is an ongoing process. If your sanctuary is interested in getting started, we recommend taking a look at foundations and grant makers that have funding opportunities specifically for programs and services that support and include people with disabilities, such as the Foundation Center and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Conduct an accessibility evaluation of all of your current spaces, programs, and facilities, and create a short-term and a long-term plan for minimizing and eliminating barriers.
- If you are beginning to make changes to your sanctuary’s current spaces and facilities, your first priority should be making all pathways as accessible as possible. Door levers won’t do much good if folks can’t get to the door!
Additional Resources for Your Sanctuary to Explore
Below is a list of additional resources we recommend for more in-depth guidance on creating and nurturing spaces that are welcoming and inclusive of folks with physical disabilities.