Melanie Isaacs was getting her Master’s in Biology at Western Illinois University when one interaction on a train changed her life. She was returning to her Chicago apartment after a class at the Shedd Aquarium when a family noticed her aquarium shirt and asked if she worked there. Melanie and the parents talked about beluga whales and sea turtles, and when she noticed their young son getting excited, she asked if he had ever been to the aquarium. His parents quickly answered no. They would never go. The young boy had autism and the aquarium was just too overwhelming for them.
Brian and Billy
When Melanie got off the train, she thought back to when she was a young girl riding on her Uncle Brian’s wheel chair. Both of her uncles – Brian and Billy – had Muscular Dystrophy. Melanie remembered the constant accessibility challenges her uncles endured, and realized that although many great strides had been made to accommodate folks with physical disabilities like Billy and Brian, those accommodations didn’t necessarily help the boy on the train.
Back to the Shedd
The next day, she contacted a local school for kids with autism and put together a plan for them to visit the aquarium. She worked with their teachers to help the students prepare for the experience, developed tools to aid in communication, and worked with the aquarium to offer support during the visit. Some of those students had been to the Shedd Aquarium before, but none had enjoyed a truly positive experience. This time, with just a few simple tools and a little extra support, the students had a blast. Every single one wanted to return to the aquarium.
Melanie has continued testing and refining those tools over the past six years, and is excited about the future of Pal. She believes these programs can be as transformative to society as wheel chair ramps were for millions of Americans like Uncle Billy and Uncle Brian. She thinks often about the boy on the train, and when asked why she has devoted her career to this purpose, she smiles and responds as a marine biologist would, "Because everyone should get to go to the aquarium."
The Next Level of Accessibility
In 2018, Pal entered into eight United States with their partnership with Flower Child, taking Pal Experiences – and the movement to include people of all abilities – to the next level.