Melanie Isaacs’ favorite place to go has always been the aquarium. Her family’s periodic treks to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium from Wisconsin are some of her most cherished childhood memories, and what set her on the path to become a marine biologist. Eventually, Melanie landed what she thought was her dream job at the Shedd, but a chance encounter revealed her true path.
One night on her train ride home, a family noticed her aquarium staff shirt. As she struck up a conversation – fielding their curiosities on everything from beluga whales to sea turtles – Melanie couldn’t help but notice their young son’s growing excitement.
Turning to include him, she asked a seemingly simple question: “Do you like to visit the aquarium?”
His parents quickly answered no. They explained their son had autism and an experience like the aquarium was simply too overwhelming for him. It was a place they would never – could never go.
Having family affected by muscular dystrophy, Melanie had long been aware of physical accommodations made standard by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the boy she met didn’t need a ramp. The accommodations his disability required were neither available nor required – despite the fact that 1 in 6 children have a developmental disability. Moved by this realization, Melanie was determined to be part of the solution.
Melanie launched her nonprofit organization Pal Experiences with a mission to make venues more inclusive and accessible to guests with autism and other cognitive disabilities. Pal Experiences offers families access to customized videos and digital tools based on proven behavioral therapy practices, which address common challenges like anxiety, sensory overload and communication barriers. These tools help prepare and empower families for new experiences and feel better supported once there. Available for free to families online, Pal is the first organization to offer video and digital, readily accessible tools of this kind – ensuring any day can be a great day for a family to go somewhere new.
Through their bold and innovative approach, Pal Experiences’ work not only supports families in overcoming these often-overlooked barriers; it also challenges common practices and misconceptions around how invisible disabilities are handled in our communities.
“Inclusion is everything. Inclusion means equal access,” explains Melanie. “I strongly believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to enjoy everything that their communities have to offer.”
To date, more than 65,000 users have accessed Pal’s tools and with partnerships in 11 states and counting, the positive impact of our newest Purple Paladin is only just beginning.
“We’re pleased and excited to welcome Pal Experiences as a Purple Paladin and join their important mission to set a new standard for accessibility and inclusivity in communities nationwide,” said Grant Thornton CEO Brad Preber. “Together, we can help ensure that everyone gets to go.”