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 were excited to talk with Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County Executive and Andy Imperati, President and CEO of the Dutchess County Agricultural Society. Below, you'll learn more about ThinkDIFFERENTLY Thursday at the Dutchess County Fair and how collaboration can create a more inclusive destination for all.
I’m Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County Executive. The ThinkDIFFERENTLY initiative began when my wife, Corinne, explained I had to change the way I approach teaching my daughter, Abigail, who is on the autism spectrum. When Abigail was in tears one evening several years ago, the last in her class to learn how to tie her shoes, I took the laces and began showing her how to tie her shows as she watched. Corinne nicely explained I had to “think differently” about how I relate to Abigail and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and a statewide movement about inclusion was born.
I’m Andy Imperati, President and CEO of the Dutchess County Agricultural Society, which runs and operates the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, the annual Dutchess County Fair, and other year-round events at the fairgrounds, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Though not affiliated with Dutchess County Government, the Fair has been proud to partner with the County to offer “ThinkDIFFERENTLY Thursday at the Fair” to offer a unique experience for fairgoers of every ability.
Marc: ThinkDIFFERENTLY is Dutchess County’s initiative to foster a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment for residents and visitors with disabilities. More than simply a slogan, ThinkDIFFERENTLY permeates seemingly every aspect of Dutchess County Government: how staff interact with customers with special needs, how we plan events for residents of every ability, how we develop and build facilities that offer greater convenience so residents of all abilities have better access to their government, and how we decide to spend our resources (fund accessible playground projects, for example) so all our friends and neighbors – regardless of ability – can take part in their community in a meaningful way. Since we began our efforts in 2015, more than 100 communities throughout Dutchess County have pledged to adopt the ThinkDIFFERENTLY idea to their own cities, villages, and towns, as have several more across the country.
Marc: The Dutchess County Fair has been a big part of my life since I was a child. After moving to northern Dutchess County as a youngster, I made it a point to attend every Fair since. Whether as a village trustee and mayor, an Assemblyman in Albany, or the County Executive since 2012, I’ve never missed a Dutchess County Fair, attending multiple days each August. As the father, I’ve long known the joy of sharing the Dutchess County Fair with my family. Knowing how things like loud music and flashing lights can be a nuisance for those on the autism spectrum, I often wondered if our county fair could accommodate those affected on its midway, even for just one morning each year.
Andy: Marc approached me prior to the 2016 Dutchess County Fair with an idea: What if we could turn off the lights and music on our popular rides and games, and provide a quiet time for visitors with sensory issues to enjoy the midway without the distraction of lights and music. It was a simple request we thought could make a real impact on visitors with disabilities. We thought it might encourage some families, who might have never brought their loved one with special needs to the fair, to take part and share what has made the fair a local institution for more than 170 years. We learned we didn’t have to make a big change to the fair to have a large impact on the lives of our guests. We were eager to host our first “ThinkDIFFERENTLY Thursday at the Fair” in 2016, and we have been thrilled to host it each year since.
Marc: As in years past, Andy and the Fair staff have dedicated the Thursday of Fair week, August 26th, to ThinkDIFFERENTLY, offering early admission at 9 a.m., ahead of the usual 10 a.m. start, and a sensory-sensitive period – no flashing lights, no loud music – on the carnival midway from 9:30 a.m. to noon. The early opening gives families the opportunity to enjoy the fairgrounds, including the animal barns on Livestock Hill and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Dutchess County 4-H Exhibit Hall, before crowds arrive. Though all the attractions and exhibits will not be open at 9 a.m., this soft opening offers families an opportunity to ease into their day, as the fairgrounds prepare for the day ahead.
Dr. Toni-Marie Ciarfella, Dutchess County’s Deputy Commissioner for Special Needs, and her ThinkDIFFERENTLY ambassadors will stroll the grounds during the morning – they’ll be easy to spot with their blue ThinkDIFFERENTLY shirts – eager to chat with families and answer any questions they may have, all with the goal of ensuring those with disabilities have an enjoyable Dutchess County Fair experience. Since the inception of this inclusive day at the Dutchess County Fair in 2016, several other fairs around the state have followed our lead and have similar sensory-sensitive periods at their events.
Andy: In addition to the traditional “ThinkDIFFERENTLY Thursday at the Fair” accommodations, this year the Dutchess County Fair is excited to offer even more for visitors with special needs and their families. ThinkDIFFERENTLY staff and ambassadors, Dutchess County Parks, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Dutchess County's 4-H program for children with special needs will be in attendance at the Fair all week to offer information and resources for families and individuals, answering questions at the new ThinkDIFFERENTLY/4-H tent, located near the famous milkshake booth. Children of every age and ability will also take part in 4-H exhibits, including arts, crafts, and animal showings. The 4-H program will offer a quiet space, providing a tranquil, cool place for those families and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who need a break from the activity of the Fair. Comfortable couches, chairs, and rugs will be available at the “4-H cafeteria,” located next to the new ThinkDIFFERENTLY/4-H tent, right by Gate 2. We’re proud to offer these amenities to our visitors with special needs, and continue our “ThinkDIFFERENTLY Thursday” collaboration with Dutchess County Government, as the Dutchess County Fair continues to be the most inclusive county fair in New York State!
Marc: As the place where the ThinkDIFFERENTLY movement began, Dutchess County proudly continues to lead the state as an inclusive and accessible destination. In addition to our enduring efforts to seek employment opportunities for those with special needs through our annual “Think Jobs” roundtable discussions; our inclusive events like this summer’s ThinkDIFFERENTLY Fitness & Field Day, combining the best of our successful ThinkDIFFERENTLY Dash and picnics; and the successful Autism Supportive Environment Training, our partnership with the Anderson Center for Autism, which teaches local businesses how to better interact with customers on the spectrum, among our other efforts; perhaps the greatest physical realization of ThinkDIFFERENTLY will be the development of our Lake Walton Preserve in East Fishkill, a universally accessible park with connections to the Dutchess Rail Trail, including the construction of a walking path around the lake and viewing areas. So many in our community made cherished memories at Lake Walton years ago; and through our historic development of the property, countless new memories will be made by future generations of residents and visitors of every ability.