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Erie County Fair adds sensory room and hours, as part of focus on universal design

 The Erie County Fair's new sensory room, pictured, was created to be a calming, quiet space for anyone who needs to take a break from the fair.
Emyle Watkins
The Erie County Fair's new sensory room, pictured, was created to be a calming, quiet space for anyone who needs to take a break from the fair.

The Erie County Fair has unveiled some new accessibility features this year to bring the event closer to its goal of universal accessibility.

A new sensory room will provide space throughout the duration of the fair for people to take a break from the bright lights and loud sounds. New sensory hours on Tuesday will allow for a more relaxed experience on the entirety of the fairgrounds.

"I think if you've been at the fair for a long time, then you really need a break from all the loudness. This is a perfect place to go," said nine-year-old Seraphina, who was checking out the new sensory room on opening day. "I like the bubbles and all the colors."

The sensory room, which is located in the security building, has a hallway separating it from the entryway, where you adjust to the light and ambient noise. Once inside, dimmed, colorful lights slowly change. The walls are cushioned and painted a neutral color. There’s a couch, a rocking chair, and a light fixture with bubbles. There are also two side booths, with exercise balls and bean bags, for privacy.

"I always navigate spaces understanding how much time I'm going to be there, how loud it's going to be, what's going to stimulate or not, and kind of pay attention to those details," said Seraphina's mother, Kerry Spicer.

She said she was excited to hear about this space in the news, and then stumble upon it while looking for food. She said adding areas like this also help normalize different sensory needs.

"For me, it's very much mainstreaming a lot of the sensory stuff too, for our kids need it," Spicer said.

The sensory space is the latest addition to the fair’s many accessibility features, including ASL interpreters, mobility device rentals, braille, and large print programs, and wheelchair-accessible tables at all picnic areas. You can read more about all of the accessibility features by clicking here.

"The American Disabilities Act defines a lot of what we're saying here today is not a maybe, but a must," said Dave Whalen, the fair’s ADA coordinator.

He recognizes that some events struggle to meet the basic requirements of the law.

"Unfortunately, a lot of places will view it as a maybe or not even on their radar, so they do nothing," Whalen added.

But he said the Erie County Fair is aiming for universal design and accessibility — a step beyond the legal minimums — the concept that you make all aspects of your program fully accessible from the start.

More on Universal Design and Accessibility.

In 1997, The Principles of Universal Designwere created by the Center for Universal Design, as a way to evaluate or guide the creation of different products and services.

The authors wrote that Universal Design is "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

Essentially, it's building or creating your product or service to be accessible to all people from the start, mitigating the need for changes or additions in the future to make the space accessible.

"That's what we do at the county fair, we take it to another level so that all can be included," Whalen said.

For neurodivergent people, people with migraines, epilepsy, or startle reflex, just to name a few —

flashing lights, loud noise, and intense smells can be overwhelming, or make a space inaccessible.

"You're in this smell over here, then you're in this environment over here, then that's going on, and this is going on," said Monique, who was at the fair with her six-year-old son Julian, who is autistic. They used the sensory room as a get-away to relax and recover.

"So it's perfect because we're gonna take a little rest, little calm down, a little relaxation, you go right into that room," Monique added.

But the sensory room isn’t the only new addition to the fair — on Tuesday, the fair will have no music, no flashing lights, and the public announcement system and other sound systems will be turned down. That will be for everyone to enjoy between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Whalen said ultimately, the goal of the new sensory features, including the sensory room which will be open the entire fair, is to give more people the chance to experience all the fun.

“If two people came and it couldn't come before, and now got in and found some enjoyment that day, we succeeded," Whalen said.

Copyright 2022 WBFO. To see more, visit WBFO.

Emyle Watkins