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Accessible Travel Series: Kathleen Marshall from Anderson Center for Autism

Publish Date: 2020-10-16

Dutchess Tourism is committed to continuing to learn about ways we can make our destination more accessible. By communicating with local attractions, towns and businesses we can keep the conversation moving forward, and make Dutchess County inclusive for individuals with special needs and their families.

We're excited to kick off our Accessible Travel Blog Series, featuring contributors from various organizations in the region spearheading accessible initiatives. Join us in getting to know Kathleen Marshall, Director of Program Services at the Anderson Center for Autism and learning about her involvement in the Autism Supportive Community.

Can you tell us a bit more about your role at the Anderson Center for Autism, and with the Autism Supportive Community program?

I’ve worked at Anderson Center for Autism for over 21 years.  For most of those years, I worked in the children’s program as a Principal and Director, which allowed me to work closely with school and residential staff and our students, who I admire and adore! A little over two years ago, my role shifted to a division of Anderson Center, Anderson Center Consulting (ACC).  There is such a demand for education and training in the area of autism spectrum disorder, and ACC works to provide professional development and capacity building, parent training and support, as well as community training. In 2015, Dutchess County awarded ACC a grant to continue our Autism Supportive Environmentâ„  trainings at no-cost, to county businesses and organizations. To date, we’ve trained over 100 businesses. This would not have been possible without the County Executive’s ThinkDIFFERENTLY initiative! Having trained so many businesses, our team thought the next logical step would be an Autism Supportive Community – a community where leadership, business people, and residents collectively worked toward a more inclusive experience for people on the spectrum, people with different needs and abilities, and their family and friends. I act as a resource, facilitator and trainer to the Autism Supportive Community Committee that was established in the Village of Rhinebeck in late 2018.

We’d love to know more about the Autism Supportive Community in Rhinebeck.

In 2018, ACC approached Rhinebeck Village Mayor, Gary Bassett, with the idea of establishing an Autism Supportive Community. Mayor Basset loved the idea and immediately began work to bring this to the village board. An official committee was established and included key members of the Village community. Simultaneously, Anderson Center Consulting applied for and received grant funding from the Thomas Thompson Trust to support the partnership between ACC and the Village. Open Forums for interested village members were held to highlight the initiative and provide education about autism and what businesses and individuals can do to support people on the spectrum.  Businesses were encouraged to do just ‘One Thing’ to support customers with autism, to demonstrate the initiative’s tagline ‘One Thing’.  The committee was thrilled to share that by July 2019, 58% of Village of Rhinebeck businesses had put at least one supportive practice in place! Some of the businesses installed less severe lighting or lowered the volume of music played at certain times of the day; restaurants offered preferred seating options or reduced wait times for seating; one restaurant opted for a picture-based menu; a salon offered earlier appointments to avoid waiting times; and many businesses chose to have a sensory kit available for patrons who might benefit from sensory input options. Northern Dutchess Hospital’s Emergency Department sought formal training for their staff and have developed an array of supportive practices that benefit people with autism and other special challenges. 

The enthusiasm for continuing the initiative only increased and we are now in our second year of the Autism Supportive Community initiative. Thanks again to the Thomas Thompson Trust as well as matching fundraising dollars, the Autism Supportive Community Committee has begun work on our Phase II goals.

Phase II goals include continuing to offer Open Forums to educate the Village of Rhinebeck community about Autism and the Autism Supportive Community program as well encouraging additional businesses to put supportive practices in place.  ACC will work with individual businesses to expand their supportive practice offerings. The committee will also be working to create a data-capturing system to measure customer “traffic” and to solicit customer feedback on supports offered and suggestions for further supports.  ACC will offer targeted training to businesses interested in hiring people with autism and of other special needs and abilities. Ultimately, the goal is for Anderson Center Consulting to fade out of the initiative as it takes on a more established presence in the Village community. Mayor Bassett and the Committee members are commended for their continued effort and dedication making the Village of Rhinebeck an ever-increasingly inclusive community.

Photo courtesy of Roger Rosenbaum

Why do you feel it is important to make our towns, businesses and attractions more accessible?

Accessible and inclusive communities just make sense from a customer and business perspective.  A 2018 article in “Diverseabiltiy” magazine found here, discusses the buying power of people with disabilities and identified this group as an “untapped market for businesses.” Good business owners strive to be “customer-friendly” but the majority overlook this particular group of consumers.

People with disabilities or challenges want to shop, dine, bank, recreate and enjoy their communities as much as we all do.  What we learned in Phase I of the Autism Supportive Community initiative was that the overwhelming majority of business and community members wanted to welcome customers with disabilities, but they lacked confidence in their ability to communicate and interact with them.  By participating in the autism training provided, they felt better equipped to engage customers with disabilities in a respectful manner.

I believe, the Autism Supportive Community initiative is ultimately about giving people with autism, and other challenges, the respect of being included, accepted and respected in a community.  In the Village of Rhinebeck, people with autism and their families are welcome to enjoy all that this special community has to offer.

What are some ideas or actions you think Dutchess County can take in the future to continue these accessible initiatives?

Dutchess County residents should be very proud of all that has been accomplished in support of people with disabilities. Individuals, organizations, and County Government work to provide an array of supports and accessible opportunities and they strive to make continuous improvements! The leadership of the County Executive and Deputy Commissioner of Special Needs in promoting the ThinkDIFFERENTLY messaging has helped to encourage business people to learn more about autism and take advantage of the training Anderson Center Consulting offers. We would love to train many more county businesses and organizations to help them become Autism Supportive Environments! Mayor Bassett and the ASC Committee understand that they are trailblazers and hope to share their experience with other communities, in and outside of Dutchess County, that are interested in becoming an Autism Supportive Community. 

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If you are a Dutchess County based attraction, town, or business with special programming, services, or initiatives geared towards accessible travel, we'd love to hear from you! Email kacie@dutchesstourism.com and let us know what you're doing, and if you'd be interested in being a future Guest Blogger!

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