Ballarat Aquatic and Lifestyle Centre enhances venue by embracing inclusion

Latrobe Community Health Service (LCHS), in partnership with City of Ballarat, Sports Central and Ballarat Autism Network, have supported the Ballarat Aquatic and Lifestyle Centre (BALC) to create greater access and inclusion at the venue.

As a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) partner in the community, LCHS initially approached the leisure centre about disability access and inclusion and how to improve the experience for everyone including people with sensory sensitivities.

LCHS provided an accessibility self-assessment tool that prompted BALC to consider physical access at the venue (including accessible toilets, parking spaces, lifts and ramps), communication (if staff are trained in inclusive communication) and consumers (do people with a disability currently access services?). LCHS also surveyed locals with autism as well as their carers, families and service providers to discover their experiences at BALC and what would be required to improve the venue’s access and inclusion.

This feedback – together with the self-assessment – helped identify improvement opportunities, including the introduction of sensory-friendly sessions. The Ballarat Autism Network and Sports Central also joined the collaboration, and the City of Ballarat engaged a consultant to research how these sensory quiet time sessions would look.

“Our team takes pride in the accessibility of our centre,” said Gerald Dixon, BALC Centre Manager.

“We’re always on the lookout for initiatives that will improve the centre and our programs to meet the needs of all members of the community. We know sensory-friendly environments are essential to many people with an autism spectrum disorder as well as their families so we are delighted to provide regular sensory quiet timeslots for our patrons.”

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Sensory-friendly sessions were launched at the start of 2020. During sessions in the afternoon from Monday-Friday as well as Wednesday and Saturday morning, lights were dimmed and music and announcements (save for emergencies) turned off throughout the pool hall, gymnastics hall and reception area. Signage was placed around the centre to alert customers of the sensory quiet time and lifeguards instructed on the proper way to approach customers generating too much noise.

“Sensory quiet periods reduce anxiety and sensory stress for people who value quieter, less stimulating environments,” said Frances Riggs, LCHS Senior Community Development and Capacity Building Coordinator.

“The centre introduced sensory balance play for 18-months to 5-year old’s in the gymnastics hall, water playgroups for 1-5-year old’s, private swimming lessons for people with sensory sensitivities as well as quiet time casual swim opportunities. Customers also have consistent swimming teachers and gymnastic coaches wherever possible as part of the inclusive approach.”

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BALC staff implemented a weekly catch-up to share and discuss learnings from the inclusive initiatives while continuing to look for ways to improve their services. Feedback from staff and customers will shape the future look of the sensory quiet times as well as other accessible features but the response has been extremely positive so far with one customer quoted saying, “My son and I along with another couple of friends attended today and it was wonderful- quiet, no stares, no comments and just an all-round positive experience. My mate and I intend to bring our boys each week now.”

The centre was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic but LCHS is working with BALC to continue to develop their plans, with the centre now registered as an Autism Swim Accredited Centre and 13 instructors completing the highest-level online training. The former Grampians Regional Communication Service also provided Inclusive Communication and Easy English training while volunteer gym coach opportunities were created for local specialist school students.

You can learn more about LCHS here and view their service locations here.

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