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Zoo New England installs communication boards

Visitors to Franklin Park Zoo will notice a welcome addition on the grounds: communication boards. The Zoo is excited to showcase these brightly-colored boards aimed at fostering equity and inclusion within the guest experience.

Communication boards are essential visual tools that allow non-speaking children and adults to express themselves by pointing to symbols or images. These boards are particularly beneficial for those with autism, individuals with speech or language differences, or those with communication disorders, as they promote independence and community interaction.

Led by Smarty Symbols (@smartysymbols), the “All Voices, Any Place – Boston 2023 Edition” initiative is designed to make public spaces welcoming for non-speaking individuals, enhance early intervention awareness, and foster community and communication for everyone. This initiative has installed communication boards in public spaces across the city, including Franklin Park Zoo. Stone Zoo has also received a board that will be installed in the near future.

“We are committed to ensuring that the Zoo experience is welcoming and accessible for guests of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences,” said Julia Whyte, Community Partnership Coordinator at Zoo New England. “As a mission-driven organization, we seek to reach a broad audience in which to share the wonders of the natural world. Through these communications boards, non-speaking children and adults have the opportunity to further express themselves while they enjoy the Zoo experience.”

Each board was meticulously designed to be functional and representative, featuring icons from the diverse Smarty Symbols library that reflect a wide array of backgrounds and abilities. Each board also contains a QR code for visitors to open a free communication app to use anywhere in the Zoo or the community. 

“Communication is at the heart of the community, and these boards are a testament to a commitment to ensuring every voice is acknowledged,” says Barbara Fernandes, owner of Smarty Symbols LLC.  Fernandes founded Smarty Symbols in 2014 with a focus on creating a more inclusive set of visual supports. In 2022, Smarty Symbols took a pioneering step by integrating communication boards into a diverse range of public spaces, effectively widening the scope of accessible communication.   

Amanda Schaumburg, owner of Panda Speech LLC, (@pandaspeech) an online community that shares resources for speech language pathologists, donated these outdoor bilingual communication boards to the zoo. “I have always loved visiting zoos with my kids and when I teamed up with Smarty Symbols for this initiative, my first thought was the zoo,” Schaumburg said. “I was impressed with the zoo’s inclusivity programs and knew these communication boards would fit perfectly.”

The communication boards are the latest step in the Zoo’s commitment to create a sensory inclusive and welcoming environment for guests. In 2019, Zoo New England partnered with Kulture City to promote an accommodating and positive experience for guests with sensory processing needs. Sensory bags equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards are available at the admissions booths to guests who may need extra support during their visit. Zoo staff also participates in yearly training through Kulture City.