Sensory-friendly events or services are specifically designed to be accessible to individuals with disabilities relating to sensory sensitivities, other disabilities, and others who prefer an adapted environment. Barry Eaton District Health Department (MI, BEDHD), in partnership with local disability service providers and schools, offered several Sensory-Friendly COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics. The clinics offered separate private areas for vaccination, dim lights, fidget toys and distraction techniques, social/visual story describing the vaccination process, staff trained in interacting with persons with disabilities, and other accommodations.

Local health departments have a responsibility to work to address health inequities across the entire population that they serve. One group which faces diverse and significant health inequities are persons with disabilities. Some individuals with disabilities require accommodations in order to be appropriately served by the local public health system. Every disabled person is unique and disabilities vary in terms of which accommodations are needed. However, most local health department programs and services are designed to be delivered one way, which serves most of the abled population. Improving the accessibility of the services we provide allows us to address disability-related health inequities.

BEDHD delivered most of its COVID-19 vaccinations in mass-vaccination settings, which were not accessible to some persons. BEDHD decided to offer an alternative-style clinic accommodate the needs of some disabled persons, as well as those with anxiety-related concerns. BEDHD reached out to the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, a local disability services provider, for key insights and recommendations on the design of a Sensory-Friendly clinic as well as reviewing training materials for staff.

BEDHD Sensory Clinic in Action

BEDHD’s Sensory-Friendly Clinics offered the following:

  1. A separate space to be vaccinated that was private to reduce distractions and sensory input and alleviate individuals from watching others get shots. Individuals who tended to elope or run away when stressed were also provided with a secure setting to keep everyone safe.
  2. Staff trained in disability best practices. BEDHD developed a 2-page just-in-time training to educate staff on appropriate behaviors and practices when interacting with people with disabilities.
  3. Accommodations requested and honored. Upon registration and at check-in, participants were encouraged to advise us of needed accommodations, which varied greatly from person to person. Staff communicated adjustments to our typical protocol so that vaccinators were prepared before seeing a participant.
  4. Use of tools to increase communication and understanding. Clear face masks were used by some staff and available to all to increase visibility of faces and lips. A social story describing the process of COVID-19 vaccination was sent to registrants ahead of the event and were also available in each vaccination room. A communication card (used by non-verbal participants) was also available.
  5. Knowledgeable and experienced volunteers. The clinics were held at our local regional school building serving children with disabilities. Staff from these programs volunteered to assist with the clinics. This helped as some participants recognized familiar staff, and the volunteers were experienced and comfortable working with people with disabilities to promote dignity and respect.
  6. Use of distraction and comfort items. BEDHD purchased some inexpensive fidget toys to distribute, as well as stickers and candy. Participants were encouraged to bring their own tablet/phone, headphones, video game, or other items.
  7. Taking enough time. Some individuals (particularly those with needle phobias or anxiety issues) required lots of time to be vaccinated. We reassured participants that we can take as long as needed.
  8. Training on use of safety positions to keep assisters and vaccinators safe. Staff and volunteers were trained on how to encourage parents or caregivers to safely and gently hold persons so that a vaccination could be administered safely. This includes use of bear hug position and holding knee, hip, and shoulder joints to prevent movement if needed when vaccinating.

BEDHD provided 10 Sensory-Friendly Clinics; 5 in each of our two counties. We served approximately 100 participants through those clinics. Many of these participants may not have been vaccinated without this opportunity. Some accommodations made for the Sensory-Friendly clinics were so successful that we expanded them to standard practice in our other clinics. These include providing fidget toys and including a spot for accommodations on our registration form.

It is important to explain in promotional materials that persons with disabilities are welcome at any of our services and accommodations can be requested at any clinic or event. However, some participants were better served knowing that many accommodations had already been anticipated for these clinics. Some parents or caregivers were expecting that we would have magical persuasive abilities for participants who were needle phobic or with significant anxiety. Often, we had lengthy discussions with parents or guardians regarding the best approach to take with these participants. Some vaccinators were less experienced with hesitant participants, children, or people with disabilities, so it’s important to consider staff assignments carefully. Pairing an inexperienced vaccinator with a more experienced and proficient vaccinator was a good strategy.

Ensure you make an effort to cultivate relationships with disability communities. Often word-of-mouth or social media is how participants hear about the clinics, so the assistance of various disability communities is important. BEDHD’s planner for our COVID-19 clinics is a parent of two children with disabilities, and her connections made outreach much easier in one of the counties. Her familiarity with the concept of sensory-friendly events and lived experience as a parent of a child with a disability also were important. Other BEDHD staff who had connections to the disability community also volunteered to assist or work the clinics. It is critical to get insight from disabled people before proceeding with these types of services – we had input from disabled persons through the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan and input from special education professionals from the Eaton Regional Educational Service Agency and the Barry Intermediate School District.

BEDHD plans to continue training its staff in disability-related accommodations and best practices. We offer homebound vaccinations as well as in-office appointments make accommodations upon request. We have also been able to use COVID-19 related funds to purchase special equipment to better serve non-ambulatory patients in our clinics. We will also specifically consider persons with disabilities in the services and programs we provide to ensure they are accessible and equitable. BEDHD is developing a tool to assess local public health departments disability inclusion practices and plans to share the tool as well as make improvements based on the results of the assessment.

BEDHD plans to continue asking how they can incorporate these practices into other services. Have BEDHD inspired you to take action? They encourage you to reach out to learn more.

  • Anne Klein Barna, MA

    Anne is the Planning and Health Promotion Director at the Barry-Eaton District Health Department in Charlotte, Michigan. Please email [email protected] for additional information.