I told you last month about the preparation for my trip to the Georgia Aquarium a few months ago. As is the norm for my life now, I couldn’t just go on a whim. We had to ask tons of questions about how they could handle my needs to see if it would be worth the somewhat expensive entrance fee. Once everything was settled, we went – only to run into a few difficulties caused by staff who didn’t really know what the aquarium offered as far as accessibility. The staff there was sincerely troubled about the issue, and stepped up to salvage my trip which was a hundred miles from my home. So, they sent us with our own personal guide from the visitor’s desk to get us started. Let me tell how the visit actually turned out. . .
The next place our guide took us was upstairs a few levels to an educational area that was a maze of hallways and doorways to exploratory classrooms. I was here because on the wall, called a braille wall, were huge, life size cut outs in two dimensions of every aquatic animal this aquarium has on view. The whale shark was the first she took me to touch. It took me several minutes to feel my way along the entire length and back of this huge creature while feeling all of the curves and fins of its huge body. It was awesome feeling the true size of creatures I will no longer see. In some ways, I think I have a better idea of how big or intricately formed many of these creatures are than the sighted who visit here looking only with their eyes.
In the area about the river, I was told about these tubes of water and fish. It sounded like tubes you might find at a water park, but clear with fish, a few rocks, some sand, and other things you might find in a river and at the river’s edge. The path walked along the side of the river, but at times in went under the river, so you could look up and see what a river environment looked like from below. I was allowed to touch in the freezing cold water some of the small creatures that live in the river. I was told about the otters that friskily played in the water beside us and splashed water on us. Later, I can go back and get to feed and play with the otters. We also walked through a tube that was a curved viewing glass of the huge tank we had seen in another area. We saw whale sharks, tiger sharks, and great whites, as well as sting rays and a manta among the many fish that swam above and beside us. It felt like you could touch them, but the glass is several feet thick in reality.
Next, I think I loved the sting ray touching pool the best. They had two. One was deeper than the other, but the other was more suited for those with any kind of physical handicap with a ramp and shallower tank to allow those who couldn’t see to place a hand just under the surface and wait for one to swim under and along your hand. Sting rays are velvety feeling except on the spine from over the head and down to the tail where there are bumps and ridges that felt like what a Klingon might feel like if you are a fan of Star Trek, which I am. The tail is like a hard stick or even a cane with smooth texture to its pointy end. There was also another touching pool in this hands-on petting area. It was filled with star fish, sea urchins, coral of all kinds and textures, and more. The sea urchins points were pointy, but not sharp as I would have imagined them to be. It was like touching the plastic bristles of a brush. My favorite was a sea slug mussel that stuffs itself inside a shell. The shell it uses is the smooth, shiny ones with browns and pinks on them that I used to pick up and collect at the beach. I love the smooth as glass or ceramic feel. I kept going back to almost self-stimulate by touching those and rubbing it over and over. The shell and the animal were part of that enjoyment. I wouldn’t have thought that I would love touching something that seemed like a slug, but there wasn’t a slimy feeling at all. It was just smooth like thin glass or maybe a squeezable ball. It was a very pleasant texture to feel. Yes, I have sensory issues now. I need and love to feel things. This was a perfect world for me to experience.
Joey liked it, too, I can say. There was some heavy conversation going on between Joey and a couple of penguins. The tank was half-filled with water and had a landscape setting of the South Pole environment on one side. My little friends had fun going into the tunnel and then popping up into the viewing chamber in the center of the exhibit. It was a little small for me, but Joey got interested in two penguins that swam over to check him out, too. They followed each other down the wall of water as we walked back and forth getting a look at the entire exhibit. Those two would come up to the class at Joey’s nose and all three would touch noses through the glass and slide up and down the wall and side to side trying to figure each other out. I don’t think the penguins knew what to make of a four-legged, furry person looking at them. Joey seemed a bit confused by the two flying-through-water birds, too. He is very familiar with all kinds of birds at our house where we have a lake with ducks, Canadian geese, owls, hawks, osprey, herons, etc. Those birds swim on top of the water and stick their heads in to get a fish or drink water from time to time, but none of them swim through the water. That was pretty amazing, if not confusing, to my little Joey. It gave me lots of joy to watch them interact, though.
The children laughed as they played, too. Our friends seemed to enjoy the extra attention they got because of me, as well. We all loved getting excited about the different animals and even crawling through tunnels (some of the grown-ups, too, who are still more flexible than me), and sliding down the two-story slide. Conversation was good and fun, too, as we caught up on the missing years. They enjoyed showing me a few signs they knew, and we laughed about some of the regional differences from California and the South. It was a terrific day even if it wasn’t perfectly accessible in all ways for me. It was worth it just as it was. That smile and girlish giggle that seemed to last all day even after arriving home may have looked silly to any who don’t understand my struggles, but it does show it was worth every minute.
Now, I’m being truthful when I say it was worth it as it was; but the staff was serious about making changes. They emailed me a few days after I was home and asked for my suggestions about bringing the transcript to their website for the DeafBlind or Blind to access with their braille display before and at the aquarium. They have worked with their staff to be sure they know about what they offer and don’t offer, as well as teaching them to be sensitive regarding relay for the Deaf calls. They also made the changes to the other download files to improve the download procedure and make the instructions clearer for all. It is rare that I am listened to at all, but for them to actually act on my suggestions made me feel useful and showed their genuine desire to make their aquarium accessible to all and the best fun learning environment around.
I do recommend an aquarium experience for anyone, including the DeafBlind. Are all aquariums like this one? I don’t think so. I went to the Tennessee Aquarium about 15 years ago. Their set up at the time was totally different. You stood in line for a good ways, and the line continuously moved at a slow rate, but moving. You eventually found yourself still in line, but moving along the switch-back trails of carpet with the tanks alternating to your side. They had lots of fish and aquatic creatures including coral. At the time, there were no ways to interact with the animals and few informational plaques and no visitor interpreters at all. I saw nothing that indicated they handled any other disabilities beside the fact that the trails of carpet were continuously handicapped accessible. The entrance had a huge staircase included in the line, but there was an elevator that bypassed before you got to the tanks. They very well could have remolded and changed the organization, since then, but I haven’t heard. If not, I hope the facilities can learn from the Georgia Aquarium. I just don’t think, from my information, that any handle accessibility as well as Georgia Aquarium. If you think of the newer Marine Land in St. Augustine, Florida, you would be right; but Georgia Aquarium actually has purchased that facility when Marine Land was about to close from lack of funds.
Another interesting tidbit I will note is that Georgia Aquarium is totally debt-free and essentially has been since before it was opened as it was built totally on donations and without tax funding. That sounds like a great business plan to ensure that it and the Marine Land facility will be around for a long time to come to enjoy. I am glad, too, because I can’t wait to go back to swim with the whales and play with the otters and then down to Florida to swim with the dolphins and learn to be a dolphin trainer for a day.
Yes, I can do that even if I am deafblind. They even have ramps to let wheel chairs get close to the animals even. Georgia Aquarium and Marine Land helps me to feel less deaf and blind and more independent, at least for a few hours, so that makes it awesome! These are the best kinds of touches, homeschool or otherwise, in the Dark Silence. Find a place that you can pretend to be a fish, too. You will come away definitely changed for the better.