All-Access Inclusion Network (AAIN): Accessibility and Inclusion

In 2013, TRIAD, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s autism institute founded the All-Access Inclusion Network (AAIN) with a goal of increasing accessibility and inclusion for neurodivergent individuals and their friends and caregivers at local community organizations.  We’re passionate that all individuals deserve to feel welcomed while visiting community organizations but also have the opportunity to belong and contribute to making Nashville such a great place to live and visit.

Accessibility and inclusion are defined many different ways. With input and collaboration from autistic individuals, we have defined accessibility and inclusion to also consider the opportunities for physical accessibility and inclusion, as well as the opportunity to participate and contribute socially in community spaces. This is a unique perspective in that we aren’t just working to create special sensory-friendly times or days at organizations; we’re making every day accessible and helping organizations increase the diversity of individuals employed at their organization to include neurodivergent staff members and volunteers. The AAIN is going beyond basic trainings for staff and working to change the culture at organizations to value differences among individuals and fully support all individuals through thoughtful program development, accommodations, and modifications.

Currently there are 23 organizations involved in the AAIN. These organizations include: Adventure Science Center, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga, TN), Discovery Center (Murfreesboro, TN), The EarlyWorks Family of Museums (Huntsville, AL), Move Inclusive Dance, Nashville Ballet, Nashville Children’s Theatre, National Museum of African American Music, Nashville Opera, Nashville Public Library, Nashville Symphony, Nashville Zoo, The Parthenon, President James K Polk Home and Museum (Columbia, TN), Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Tennessee Library for Accessible Books and Media, Tennessee State Museum, We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym (Franklin, TN), and YMCA of Middle Tennessee. In addition to the community organizations, we also collaborate with other disability organizations. While TRIAD leads the network, the network is not autism-centric but rather has a focus on neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the concept that there is a variation in brain function and related behaviors should be considered normal variations within human development. Neurodiversity also emphasizes individuals who have variations outside of ‘typical’ should be recognized by their strengths, including strengths rooted in their differences.

Lastly, but most importantly, the AAIN is lead by the ideas of our advisory committee. The advisory committee includes autistic self-advocates who assess and inform the directions of the network. It also includes representatives from community and disability organizations to ensure the goals and activities of the network align with what the neurodivergent population needs for our community to be more accessible and inclusive and are realistic based on the resources at community organizations.

The AAIN activities include a variety of custom coaching and consultation from TRIAD experts, ongoing training activities for community organizations and the collective network, collaboration with other community organizations, community members including neurodiverse individuals, and disability organizations. Biannual network meetings include conversations driven by network needs and focused on further reach and growth. Lastly, the network includes various methods of communication with community members regarding inclusive opportunities at organizations via social media, newsletters, emails, website. Resources and supports created are shared on TRIAD’s resource directory in addition to on their organization’s website.

As evidence of the strong work TRIAD is contributing in this area, we were recently awarded funding for a project in collaboration with Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The project is entitled, Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science (MoZAICS) project. MoZAICS focuses on developing an evidence-based framework of inclusive practices for zoos and aquariums to support science learning for individuals with autism. This work will impact the full zoo and aquarium experience, including the general visit, programs, exhibits, internships, volunteering and employment opportunities. The four-year project will also support the building of a community of zoo and aquarium practitioners dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of individuals with autism working toward an overall strategy of inclusion across the AZA community.

The AAIN will continue to support our community as we strive for full accessibility and inclusion. We recognize, though, inclusion is an ongoing and dynamic process that can never truly be achieved by an organization or community. One can always do more to better support and include more individuals in programming and employment. As a community, we should also challenge organizations to do more by having high expectations that exceed special sensory times or days and quiet spaces. While these can be supportive of neurodivergent populations we should never stop there.

For more information on this program visit Triad’s website.