It has been a while since I have been able to write an ‘Autism Review’ so I am pleased to be able to share the next blog in this series. This review focuses on how accessible Chester Zoo was for autistic people.
Before you visit:
Upon looking at the website (https://www.chesterzoo.org/plan-your-visit/opening-times) it isn’t clear that there is any accessibility information available from the home page. To find the accessibility information you need to click ‘Plan Your Visit’ then scroll down until you see ‘Accessibility’. I was pleased to see that there was a section on accessibility for ‘Visitors on the Autistic Spectrum’ that provides information on:
- A map of the zoo to help you plan your day
- Information about the animals you might see at the zoo
- Information about when the quieter time to visit are
- Information about tailor-made visits for groups
- Encouragement to ask staff for help
- Assurance that staff have been trained
Whilst this level of information is good, I did find that there are a few issues with this page. Some of the information itself is presented as being about accessibility for example the membership scheme when this is not related to accessibility at all and some of the language used on this page also concerns me in terms of understanding autism. The choice of colours on this page (and website in general) isn’t accessible which also makes some of the information difficult to read.
During your visit:
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the sound of extremely loud music with one member of staff stood in front of the source of the music shouting something. Due to the volume of the music, it was impossible to take in what this member of staff was saying which already creates access issues. When arriving at the ticket barrier at the entrance, I scanned my ticket as the signage suggested but was informed by a member of staff to not do it now. By this point, I was extremely overwhelmed due to the sheer number of people that were being let in at one time, and being made to wait longer only made it worse.
Once in the zoo, there is then the difficulty of finding your way around. The map available on the website and placed around the zoo is difficult to follow so getting lost is a high probability! I did eventually try the map on the Chester Zoo but this also proved a challenge to be able to use.
One of the key accessibility points on the website is the quieter times to visit. I visited during times that the website stated would have been quieter but this certainly wasn’t the case on the day that I visited. I have already mentioned the number of people arriving at one time but the crowds continued around the zoo. There were many school groups there on this day as well which meant there were several occasions where I was pressed up against a wall to let a school group that didn’t accommodate other visitors pass by either. This became extremely frustrating throughout the visit and only added to the anxiety I was already feeling.
Another accessibility point raised on the website was to ask staff due to the training received and they would be more than happy to help. This would help to make a visit more accessible, however finding staff to ask is nearly impossible and those you do find don’t seem to want to help. On the many occasions that we found ourselves lost, it would have been really helpful to have a member of staff to ask for help but there were no staff around. Some staff are meant to have been trained as Autism Champions but there is no way of knowing who these staff are!
One of the newest additions to the zoo is the Monsoon Forest, having read a lot about it before my visit I was really looking forward to seeing it.
However, inside there were several issues with accessibility that myself and others commented on. These included:
- Trying to get through ropes to move from room to room
- Narrow walkways throughout
- Cramped spaces that get easily blocked by other visitors
Although this review is mainly focused on the accessibility for autistic visitors, I also wanted to mention other accessibility issues I experienced during my visit. There are multiple points in the zoo where you are forced to walk on wooden walkways which are designed in a way that causes a significant amount of pain if, like me, you also have additional conditions with your feet.
At the entrance to the ‘Realm of the Red Ape’ that there was a sign that contained a quote from Autism Together describing the environment inside the building (see picture at the start of the blog). This is fantastic in terms of accessibility as it provides clear information for autistic people on what to expect before they enter so that they can prepare themselves and decide if they want to continue or not. I really wish that this had been a consistent approach throughout the zoo.
I have already provided this feedback through a feedback form sent by Chester Zoo and asked to be contacted to discuss this further but I have had no response. This is something that I would really like to discuss with them further given the number of accessibility issues that were encountered during my visit.
Overall, I was really disappointed with the lack of accessibility for autistic people during my visit to Chester Zoo. Many of the things promised on the website were just not available. I had been looking forward to this trip but was instead left feeling overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted. I would really like to discuss this further with Chester Zoo.