Georgia Aquarium Is a Kingdom Fit for a Chair: MM Explores Accessible Features of Undersea Exhibit


Ever wonder if Poseidon's kingdom is up to date on ADA compliancy? Mobility Management visited the Georgia Aquarium, a newly opened undersea exhibit in the heart of downtown Atlanta, to find out. With winding, gently ramped walkways wide enough to accommodate even the largest power chairs, three boldly marked elevators throughout the building and eager-to-help staff, the aquarium is on the fast track to opening the wonders of the sea to all creatures — both able-bodied and those with disabilities.

A tunnel cut through the Ocean Voyager gallery offers visitors a glimpse of the sea from a different point of view. Whale sharks, clown fish and smiling manta rays swim directly overhead. Other peering displays offer floor-to-ceiling windows into the great deep for eyeing colorful schools of fish and even majestic beluga whales.

The Georgia Aquarium is located at 225 Baker Street. Make reservations by calling (404) 581-4000 or visiting

Though the aquarium is currently being retrofitted with ADA components, with the help of Welcome Change ( and ADA consultant Anne DelBene, some of the original design elements have made the process easier. For example, the windows that come down to the floor were "wonderfully thought of and implemented before I came onto the scene of the aquarium," says DelBene.

Getting around the Georgia Aquarium is easy enough. From the atrium, cave-like hallways lead visitors off to different galleries. The aquarium installed handrails in many areas, widened the entrance of the Tropical Diver gallery and carved out a wide track through the gift shop so that visitors, who must navigate the merchandise to exit, can do so easily. The signage also is more pronounced.

Most of the restrooms incorporate roll-under sinks, full-length mirrors and automated sinks and soap and towel dispensers. In the original design, however, baby changing stations were installed in the accessible stalls of the main restrooms. The aquarium is working on changing the design. Angela Peterson, director of Guest Programs at the Georgia Aquarium, says, "We haven't been able to pull (the baby changing stations) out, but that is on our list of things to do. We did install in the restrooms that don't have the baby changing stations, we put them outside of the restroom so that people wouldn't have to wait as long if they're in a wheelchair to get into the restroom stall."

Want to pet a starfish? The aquarium has implemented many changes to the touch pools to make them more accessible, including a sink at Cold Water Quest's touch tank so people who use mobility equipment don't have to use slippery sanitizing gel to wash their hands. But more work is still to be done.

"In ADA federal and state regulations, there are not specific measurements for (touch tanks)," says DelBene. "There are reach ranges, but reach ranges are designed for reaching straight up and then out across a distance of 24" maximum. It doesn't calculate if you're also reaching down — and not only down to touch something, but down 10" into water (and) then the substrate is 10" below that. So, what we're ending up doing in the aquarium, in essence, is creating a standard for the industry."

For now, the aquarium has come up with a different solution so that people who use wheelchairs can touch the animals. "At a number of the touch tanks, we've added trays for someone who is mobility impaired who uses a wheelchair," says DelBene, an incomplete quadriplegic who also uses a wheelchair. "The staff member takes the animal out of the water, out of the large touch tank (and) into a tray that's filled with water, and then can lower it to the level of the person in the wheelchair. And so then, they can have the same experience and the same opportunity to interact with these amazing animals."

Unfortunately, the solution works only with select animals. "We have a container where they can look at but they can't touch (the shrimp, for example) because the shrimp have a tendency to jump out," says Peterson.

Ramps take visitors into and out of the aquarium, and an accessible drop-off is located near the entrance ramps. The parking deck is equipped with an elevator, automatic doors and wheelchairs on hand for anyone who needs them.

But be warned, the aquarium is so new that people are flocking to the exhibit in hordes. In fact, congestion has been one obstacle for the aquarium. The large number of people inside can make navigating a wheelchair — even through the widest halls — a bit of a challenge.

"What we're running into in Tropical Diver in a big way is the windows are there, the life support systems are there," says DelBene, which makes moving the displays difficult. "And part of what causes the congestion is there's a window on the right and then immediately a window on the left and then immediately a window on the right, and there's a curve at the same time with the big display window on the left," she says. "So, people are stopping for all of these things, which just creates congestion."

In other areas of the aquarium, these congestion issues have been resolved by moving some of the animals around. For example, one congestion area near the now relocated giant squid display required people to stop on the slope of a ramp — not safe for those using a rolling mobility device.

One of the biggest changes the aquarium has made has been staff training. "Guest Services has done an entire training (with) Welcome Change," says DelBene, "to help the other guests be more respectful around people who have mobility and cognitive and visual and hearing requirements — of just being very gentle and saying, 'Why don't you move over here and give the person in the chair a little bit of space and not stand on their footplate?' "

Training also included teaching the staff how to recognize those with impairments and how to politely offer assistance.

Another exercise that DelBene included in her evaluation of the aquarium was putting staff in wheelchairs and allowing them to see the space from a different point of view. "We went out of the aquarium, we went through the gift shop, and then I would stop them and say, 'What did you notice? What was difficult and what was easy? And why was it difficult and why was it easy?' " says DelBene. "And I would just keep repeating those questions as we would go through things."

The experience helped point out to the staff some of the things that needed to be changed, such as having the elevator door stay open longer, reducing the weight of the doors and improving lighting and signage.

Currently, the aquarium is working on adding family restrooms, installing an interactive rumbler platform for wheelchairs at the 4-D show and remodeling the confusing ramp in the main atrium (which goes up to the rotunda, not the Cold Water Quest exhibit).

All the hard work is paying off. "Of all the places I have been and assessed, I have seen more people in wheelchairs at the aquarium than any of the other places," says DelBene.

DelBene also has been impressed by the aquarium's willingness to make changes. "This is just an ADA consultant's dream," she brags. "They (say), 'We want to be acceptable. We want to have someone with a disability have as fabulous a time and as exciting and as fulfilling a time here at the aquarium as any other guest that visits. How do we do that?' "

The eagerness by the staff has prompted many of the changes to happen quickly, though plenty of projects are waiting in the wings.

"I think if you come back in a year you're going to find some amazing things have happened," says Peterson. "It's exciting to be involved in something like this, where we can make the changes and really try to make a difference and make everyone's experience so much better."

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Top 10 Tips for Navigating the Georgia Aquarium

Top 10 Tips for Navigating the Georgia Aquarium

Anne DelBene, ADA consultant with Welcome Change, offers people with mobility disabilities the following advice when visiting the Georgia Aquarium:

  1. Come early or come late.
  2. If you need help, ask for the trained staff for assistance.
  3. Some of the exhibits have many ramps in a row, which can be very tiring if you are self-propelling. A staff member can assist.
  4. Until the modification to remove the baby changing stations from the accessible stalls in the main restroom has been completed, visit the restrooms located in Café Aquaria instead.
  5. Watch out for large crowds in Tropical Diver.
  6. If you'd like to touch an animal in one of the touch pools, ask a staff person to put the animal in a basket for you. While the staff is trained to offer assistance, with the high volume of people, the staff may not see you immediately. Be warned, however, that in exhibits like the Georgia Explorer, some animals cannot be taken out of the touch tanks.
  7. In Ocean Voyager, when you get to the top of the big ramp, the next ramp to get down to the main floor to see the window is a U turn to the left — a turn that can be a bit confusing.
  8. The big ramp in the center of the atrium takes you not to Cold Water Quest, but to the rotunda and ballroom. Instead use the ramp that starts near Georgia Explorer to get to the exhibit.
  9. Sign up for the Behind the Scenes tour, which the aquarium is working on making seamlessly accessible.
  10. Call beforehand and get your tickets beforehand. A staff person can be on hand to lead you through the aquarium and can set you up with a wheelchair if needed.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

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