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Minnesota State Fair focused on addressing accessibility for all

In recent years, the State Fair has taken the wide issue of accessibility and brought it to the forefront of their planning. They offer an extensive accessibility guide including ASL interpreting services and sensory-friendly visits.

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Crowds fill the Fairgrounds on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights in August 2019.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo
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ST. PAUL -- Joshua Straub has cerebral palsy and is a full time wheelchair user.

He has been to the Minnesota State Fair a few times, but says he feels like the fairgrounds have aged and not always kept up with ADA regulations.

Some spaces are more difficult than others to access for wheelchair users. The coliseum has narrow entrances, the grounds are crowded, the curb ramps are small and often easy to miss. Several years ago Straub tipped his wheelchair and broke his finger.

While he says there are many positives, they tend to be outweighed by a few high impact barriers.

“As I have gotten older the State Fair has begun to become a bit more trouble than it’s worth,” he said.

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In recent years after hearing stories similar to Straub’s, the State Fair has taken the wide issue of accessibility and brought it to the forefront of their planning. They offer an extensive accessibility guide including ASL interpreting services and sensory-friendly visits.

Christine Noonan, marketing and guest supervisor at the fair, says it’s important that the fair sees the issue of accessibility beyond visible physical disabilities.

“We have a very broad view of accessibility. When you’re going to something like the Great Minnesota Get-together, you need to try to make it a great experience for everybody,” she said.

The accessibility committee at the fair is wide, encompassing everything from transportation, ticketing, entertainment, food and rides. That’s purposeful, Noonan says, to make sure that accessibility touches every department. Every six weeks they meet and talk about challenges and resources. Noonan says it is a process rather than an end goal, but they’re excited about the possibilities.

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The Fraser Sensory building at the Minnesota State Fair pictured on Aug. 23, 2022.
Courtesy / Gina Brady via MPR News

“We are 100% willing to try and make any accommodation. Everything is on the table, we are open for feedback and criticism, that’s important to us and the way that we move forward,” she said.

Last year, the Fraser Sensory Building made its debut. Located on the west side of Cosgrove Street, south of the home improvement building, the building has sensory support volunteers, tools and techniques such as weighted blankets, shoulder wraps, calming music and fidget toys.

While Fraser is marketed toward helping autistic Minnesotans, senior therapist Gina Brady says anyone needing a break or who may be anxious is welcome.

“There are so many sounds, lights and smells — sometimes it’s helpful if people have a place to go and just kind of remove themselves from all of that stimulation for a little bit,” Brady said.

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The building is often used during the parade each day or right after fair-goers enter the gates and may need a break before they start their day. They also sell sensory kits for $45 that include fidgets, noise reducing headphones and other sensory tools that Brady said can help modify the environment once they leave the building.

“We want people to be able to experience more of the fair and have as many tools and strategies as they need.”

Jillian Nelson, community resource and policy advocate with the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), says the fight for sensory-friendly space at the fair and other large gatherings in Minnesota has been a work in progress.

AuSM has worked with different festivals and groups throughout the state to model what sensory support can look like at large events. Nelson, who is autistic herself, said she really hopes to create an expectation that all community events can follow to have options of accessibility.

Nelson said the Fraser building is a great resource, but like Noonan, says the conversation must be ongoing.

“Accessibility is not a one and done deal, it is about growing and developing to create the most inclusive space,” Nelson said. “To be a full, accessible society, there needs to be a space for people with disabilities to belong in all spaces, especially those community and culture spaces because those are the things that make life vibrant and beautiful and proud to be Minnesotans.”

The fair offers a sensory section of their accessibility guide with tips and tricks when visiting. Below are points included in their guide.

When to visit

Come early in the day. Arriving by 8 a.m. will enable you to enjoy much of the fairgrounds before it gets crowded and the noise gets louder. Many people come as early as 7 a.m. when we open, walk through the barns and livestock area to see the animals, eat breakfast and stroll the grounds. The Pet Pavilions and Kemps Little Farm Hands areas open at 8 a.m.; the other buildings and exhibits open at 9 a.m. and are rarely crowded right when they open. The rides and games at Kidway open at 9 a.m., and Mighty Midway opens at 10 a.m., and are not usually busy in the morning. Lines for activities and food are often shorter earlier in the day.

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It’s also recommended to visit on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Attendance on these days (especially Wednesday) is much less than on the weekends. Lines for activities and food tend to be shorter on these days.

Things to do

The Fraser Sensory Building is an oasis specially created for fair guests of all ages with sensory-processing challenges who may find the sights, sounds, smells and crowds of the fair overwhelming. See above for more information about the building and the services and resources offered. The Fraser Sensory Building is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (8 p.m. on Labor Day) and is located on the west side of Cosgrove Street just south of the Home Improvement Building.

Two interactive outdoor exhibit areas in Family Fair at Baldwin Park — Alphabet Forest and Math On-A-Stick — are geared toward children and provide fun, hands-on activities in a relaxing, shaded environment; these areas tend to be less crowded and less hectic. Guests can come and go, do some or all the activities, and stay as long or as short as they’d like. These two areas are right across the street from the 4-H Building.

On the outdoor Family Fair Stage at Baldwin Park, there is a variety of entertainment designed for the whole family — jugglers, music and dance, magic and more. The seating area is less crowded than other parts of the fair, and there’s easy in-and-out access in case guests come late or want to leave early.

The Thank A Farmer Magic Show is an engaging, educational program that weaves together magic tricks and fun facts about agriculture, farmers and where our food comes from. The seating area is usually less crowded, so there’s room to move around. This program is presented three times a day at the Christensen Farms Stage outdoors in front of the CHS Miracle of Birth Center. (The 1 p.m. show is ASL-interpreted.)

The FFA Leadership Center and Chapter House is right next door to the Christensen Farms Stage and the CHS Miracle of Birth Center. Venture inside for hands-on activities exploring aspects of farming and agriculture. Activities are led by youth involved in the statewide FFA program. The exhibit area is typically not as crowded and is quieter than other places on the fairgrounds. The building is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (3 p.m. on Labor Day).

Many of the animal competitions are held in the Warner Coliseum. While some shows are very popular (such as the draft horse show, Western horse speed races and the llama-alpaca costume contest), many of the exhibitions are held throughout the day, and the Coliseum is not very full. The Coliseum air tends to be cooler too, so it’s a nice place to sit and rest and watch cattle, other livestock and horses being judged.

What to bring

Guests are welcome to bring their own sensory tools such as noise-reducing earmuffs or fidgets. If you forget your sensory tools, you can purchase a sensory kit at the Fraser Sensory Building. (Please note that guests will enter the fairgrounds through metal detectors, and bags may be subject to search.)

Guests may bring in outside food and beverages (except alcohol). Having a supply of snacks, food and drinks may come in handy if the lines at food vendors are long. (Please note that bags and coolers may be subject to search at the entrance, and coolers are not permitted in the Grandstand concert seating area.)

At the present time, face coverings are not required at the fair; however it’s recommended that everyone carry a face covering with them in case it’s needed to enter an area where they are required such as First Aid.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA STATE FAIR
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