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.
Pal is Born
This was a problem that needed solving. Starting with a pilot at the Shedd Aquarium, Pal Experiences was born as a solution. Using evidence based best practices in behavioral therapy, Melanie found using videos to foreshadow what to expect and tools to support transitions and communication once there, could make a world of difference. The pilot was filled with smiles and fun from a group of kids who had never had the chance to experience this aquarium. These smiles still fuel Pal’s work today.
Melanie has continued testing and refining those tools over the past eight years, and is excited about the future of Pal. She believes these programs can be as transformative to society, just as physical accommodations 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
Based in Phoenix, AZ, Pal Places now exist in 8 states, expanding Pal Experiences – and the movement to include people of all abilities – to the next level.