Location: 315 S. 3rd Street; Manhattan, Kansas 66502
Cost: Adults $9; Military, Students, Seniors (65+) $7; Children $4; Kids 2 and under free.
In the months since we visited the Flint Hills Discovery Center, I’ve struggled with how to review it for this blog. What I’m left with is a profound sense of disappointment: with all of the thought, planning, and money clearly poured into the development of the Discovery Center, no one took the time to make it accessible for people with disabilities. The bare minimum required by law is there, of course–the doors are wide enough for wheelchairs, for instance–but with all of the years of planning and development, no one thought to take the time to make the center truly accessible for all.
There is no braille, or was no braille as of July 2012–I asked at the front desk when we arrived. The exhibits, although beautiful, are generally out of height range for people in wheelchairs: items are placed at waist-height or higher for an average adult, which makes them simply too high for those in wheelchairs or many other assistive devices. Although there are fabulous interactive exhibits on the ground floor, many of them are vision-based, making them inaccessible for B/VI kids and adults. It would have been nice if these things had been taken into consideration when the center was developed and designed.
There are still beautiful and amazing things about the Discovery Center. If you go, you must visit the Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time movie in the theatre. Efrit thought that the movie was reason enough to visit the center. The doors to the theatre open automatically when the countdown clock hits zero. There are polymer benches designed to look like limestone. The movie itself is immersive: smoke billows across the floor when it covers prairie fires; snow falls from the ceiling when it talks about prairie winters. It really is an amazing film.
The ground floor has lots of interactive exhibits, although most are vision-based. There were native heritage exhibits made to look like the structures those peoples made, so there are some tactile elements there. There are cattle brands to feel, auctioneers to listen to, and a model train that was actually at a height where Peanut could see it easily. My favorite exhibit was one that showed how deep the roots of prairie grasses are–unfortunately, this is one of the exhibits that is utterly inaccessible for those with vision impairments.
The second floor has a kids’ play area that Peanut and Sprout both adored. There is a Prairie Pipe Organ that plays different prairie sounds, like meadowlarks, prairie chickens, and buffalo; it could be made accessible so easily with the addition of braille labels. There is an enormous peg light box, where kids can put in clear polymer pegs to make designs–these were easily manipulable, so that our then-11-month-old little girl could play with it by herself. There are huge magnetic puzzles of prairie creatures, giant turnips ala Mr. Potato Head to manipulate, and a huge toy with a tunnel to crawl through and a slide to spiral down. There’s an arts and crafts area staffed with very friendly people, and a little baby zone for little guys and gals to romp in. The second floor was fabulous–it wasn’t as accessible as it could or should be, but it was playable for both Peanut and Sprout.
Although I was awed by the center at the time, in the months since our visit, all of the awe and wonder has been replaced by disappointment. It would have been so easy to make this center truly accessible–and no one took the time or thought to do so.