Tennessee Aquarium earns sensory inclusive certification, first in Tennessee

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Sensory bags are now available for check out at the Tennessee Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater, and Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. (Photo: TN Aquarium)

There is a growing body of research that suggests visiting an aquarium and watching schools of fish has the soothing health benefits of reducing heart rates and significantly lowering blood pressure.

Even though many people feel relaxed and at ease while exploring the galleries of the Tennessee Aquarium, the Aquarium says others might be overwhelmed or experience anxiousness at times.

“Individuals with autism, dementia, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and similar conditions face hurdles that many of us rarely consider unless we have family or friends with sensory sensitivities or challenges,” says Mara-Lynne Payne, the Aquarium’s manager of diversity and inclusion. “While some of our staff have been trained to assist guests with sensory sensitivities for many years, we were looking for an opportunity to provide more training and the necessary tools to offer the most comfortable and accommodating experience for all of our guests.”

To that end, the Aquarium says it partnered with KultureCity, a nationally-recognized non-profit that works with visitor-serving organizations to revolutionize and bring about change in the community for individuals with sensory needs. KultureCity toured the Aquarium to identify “Headphone Zones” and “Quiet Zones” that could serve as oases of calm for guests in need of a quieter, less-stimulating environment.

As part of the certification process, KultureCity provided staff training. Leading medical professionals shared best practices for recognizing individuals with sensory needs and how best to assist over-stimulated visitors. Other Aquarium staff and volunteers are able to take sensory inclusion training through online modules.

“To earn KultureCity’s sensory inclusion certification, we had to have 50 percent of our team trained,” Payne says. “Everyone was enthusiastic about this program, and we now have more than 80 percent of our staff ready to assist guests.”

The TN Aquarium says sensory bags, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads are now available for visitors who may feel overwhelmed by their surroundings. These kits are available for check-out at the Tennessee Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater and Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.

“We at KultureCity are truly honored to partner with the Tennessee Aquarium to make them the very first sensory-inclusive location in this great state,” says Dr. Julian Maha, the co-founder of KultureCity. “As a father of a child with a sensory need, having a great organization like this step up and be inclusive means the world. Not only is the Tennessee Aquarium taking the step to care for all individuals, regardless of their abilities, but they are also making a proactive move to create a community that not only understands but supports our families and our loved ones.”