Children take in the holiday WildLights displays at The Living Desert in 2021. Photo courtesy of The Living Desert

If you’re looking for a sure bet, you can place a wager each year on The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens winning several categories in our annual Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll—and such was the case this year, with the Palm Desert wildlife and botanical refuge earning top honors in three categories.

“For more than 52 years, The Living Desert has been a community icon here in our Coachella Valley, serving a variety (of needs), not only as a spot for families to get together and have a good time at the zoo, but also for education and conservation programs that we do every day,” said Erin Scott, senior manager of marketing and public relations, during a recent interview.

The Living Desert welcomes more than 500,000 visitors a year through its gates—and in recent years, the staff has placed an emphasis on making the experience sensory inclusive, making it more enjoyable for visitors with disabilities.

“We are a certified KultureCity sensory-inclusive facility,” said Jordan Hopkins, the senior manager of guest relations at The Living Desert. “That means that we partner with KultureCity, which is another nonprofit organization, to do training for all of our staff and our volunteers here at the zoo. We aim to better provide the best day ever for any of our guests who may be on the spectrum for autism or Down syndrome, or may be suffering from traumatic brain injury or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). There is a whole slew of disabilities that are visible or invisible, so we just want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they walk through our gates. That’s our main priority here.”

Visitors can check out sensory-inclusive bags for free during their visit.

“They contain noise-cancelling headphones, because there are some parts of the park that are a little bit louder,” Hopkins said. “They contain digit toys and non-verbal cue cards, for someone who may struggle to voice what they’re feeling or what their needs are. The cards (display) basic emotions on one side—you know, happy, sad, tired—and on the other side, you have different basic needs, including a drink of water, or a restroom, or snacks, or just a quiet-time break. That way, everyone can communicate together and be clear about what they need. Also, we became a certified autism center recently.”

Scott said The Living Desert has received positive feedback on the sensory-inclusivity initiatives thus far.

“We had a couple of Yelp reviews that said how amazing it was to have these resources; it really made their visit,” she said. “They wouldn’t have come otherwise, or they were worried about coming until they found out we’d taken these steps to make sure we are a welcoming and inclusive place for all.”

On Saturday, Dec. 3, the Living Desert will host, for the second year in a row, its annual World Disability Day event, in conjunction with the SoCal Adaptive Sports organization and the Desert Recreation District.

Michael Rosenkrantz, the co-founder of SoCal Adaptive Sports, talked about World Disability Day, officially called the International Day of Persons With Disabilities, during a recent interview with the Independent.

“It was started by the United Nations” in 1992, Rosenkrantz said. “Every year, there’s a new theme, and this year’s theme is: ‘Not all disabilities are visible.’

“We can see physical disability, and we can (ascertain) intellectual disability. We can see or hear when someone may be on the autism spectrum—but you can’t see mental-health disorders. You can’t really feel or understand someone’s chronic pain and fatigue. Yet those difficulties are as challenging, or maybe more challenging, than someone’s physical disability. So every year, we all like to come together and celebrate the capabilities of people with disabilities, or as a former CEO of mine in India used to call them, ‘discoverabilities.’”

These sensory inclusive bags are available for free checkout to visitors of The Living Desert. Contents include noise-cancelling headphones, digit toys and non-verbal cue cards. Photo courtesy of The Living Desert

Rosenkrantz said he recently gave a lecture at which he asked attendees how many of them watched this year’s Paralympic Games.

“Nobody raised their hand,” he said. “I was a little surprised at that, or maybe a lot surprised. It made me realize just how far we still have to go to create a more inclusive society. But now, this is the second year in a row that we’re working with The Living Desert, and that’s because they’re very open and welcoming.”

Hopkins said The Living Desert is looking forward to hosting the event.

“We’ll have a bunch of different organizations present from all over the Coachella Valley,” Hopkins said. “We’ll get together here at The Living Desert and create a resource fair where anyone can come and talk to all these different organizations to learn what services they have available to them here in the Coachella Valley. We’ll have anywhere from 15 to 25 different organizations join us that day. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and everyone is invited to come and participate. It’s a really fun day filled with opportunities to learn about the valley itself.”

Organizers were still in the planning stages for the day’s activities as of our press deadline, but they expect to offer some athletic pursuits, such as boccia ball and a sports-wheelchair obstacle course, as well as art and educational experiences.

It’s just one event during a busy holiday season at The Living Desert, with the 30th anniversary edition of WildLights kicking off Nov. 23.

“It’s our family-friendly, festive holiday tradition for so many here in the Coachella Valley, and a great way to celebrate the holidays and support The Living Desert,” Scott said.

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...

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