Belfast Zoo is a 55-acre site located on the side of Cave Hill in Belfast. While the zoo and its visitors benefit from an incredibly unique setting with picturesque views over Belfast Lough, the site has historically presented accessibility challenges due to the nature of the historic hillside site.
Based on feedback from visitors with disabilities, best practice, benchmarking, legislative requirements, site capability, available budget and in conjunction with Belfast City Council’s Equality and Diversity Officer, the zoo developed an Accessibility Improvement Plan in 2017 to help overcome these challenges. The key aim of the plan is to ensure that the zoo provides a suitable service for all visitors, regardless of accessibility and disability.
The Accessibility Improvement Plan is an ongoing strategic and operational plan that helps the zoo plan, prioritise and budget for improvements to the experience of those visitors with accessibility requirements, and contributes to asset development and improved visitor experience.
In addition to Belfast Zoo’s standard offerings like free carers entry and free wheelchair hire, the zoo implemented a range of minor to major improvement actions between 2018 and 2021 which have significantly enhanced the zoo’s accessibility provision.
These include the introduction of regular Quiet Hours and an annual Sensory Day event for visitors with sensory requirements, alongside participation in community events such as Age Friendly Belfast and Belfast Festival of Learning. The zoo continues to participate in the annual Dreamnight event (however this has been on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic) for children with critical and life-limiting illnesses and their family.
The introduction of free SignVideo software enables deaf people to communicate with zoo staff via a British Sign Language interpreter in real time on a video relay system. A free audio tour, provide by Cloud Guide, was introduced for visitors who are partially sighted however it also acts as a great guide for any visitor to the zoo.
The introduction of the ‘Zoomobile’, a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, allows visitors with mobility requirements to easily access the Cave Hill site. Major investments in 2021 included the upgrade of the zoo’s accessible parking bays and the development of a Changing Places facility, a specialist toilet including an adult-sized changing bench, hoist system and adjustable wash basin.
An often-overlooked area of accessibility is digital accessibility. Belfast Zoo launched a new website which significantly enhanced its digital accessibility, increasing the WCAG 2.1 standard from 56% to 98%.
Additionally, Belfast Zoo commenced a new partnership with Ulster Supported Employment (USEL) who operate two Ability Cafés in the zoo, a social enterprise which provides employment opportunities for people with a disability or health condition.
Belfast Zoo was recently awarded the first Community Champion Award by the Ehlers-Danlos Society UK and a BIAZA Gold award for Diversity and Inclusion in recognition of these improvements.
Zoo management and staff continue to consider short, medium and long-term options as part of the Accessibility Improvement Plan and hope its actions will inspire other BIAZA members to consider their own improvements to make all zoos a great day out for everyone.