In addition to offering sensory skates for those with special needs, the Municipality of the County of Richmond’s recreation department recently installed an accessibility ramp at the Richmond Arena with funding support from the Department of Communities Culture and Heritage.

ARICHAT: The municipal recreation department is offering something new for those with special needs.

Sharla Mombourquette-Sampson – community engagement/active living coordinator with the Municipality of the County of Richmond’s Department of Recreation, Leisure and Community Relations – said they started hosting weekly sensory-friendly skates at the Richmond Arena for those with sensitivities on Feb. 5.

“The idea came from the fact that that COVID has restricted a lot of us from participating in sport and recreation opportunities,” she told The Reporter. “Because of that, our family skate numbers were limited for people to attend. And we were noticing, that through phone with parents of children who, may or may not be on the autism spectrum disorder, or may have sensory processing disorders, that they asking us we could find a way to make things a little more accessible.”

Because public health restrictions limited how many people can be in the arena, and because those with special needs are not comfortable attending events with large numbers of people, Mombourquette-Sampson said the department sat down with parents to come up with solutions.

“We sat down as a department to try and figure out a way that we can make our facility accessible for all, in terms of them feeling safe and feeling comfortable,” Mombourquette-Sampson noted. “One of the things we came up with is we should have something for them, specifically.”

Mombourquette-Sampson said the skate was designed for families with children with sensitivities, but can also include adults and teens attending on their own.

After determining that Thursdays and Fridays were the best days of the week for such an event, she said recreation staff drafted out plans to host events where participants are sensitive to light and sound.

“We can dim the lights, we can have no music, and we can ask our arena attendants to not perform any louder maintenance requirements in that hour,” Mombourquette-Sampson explained.

Recreation staff visited the arena, and skated the ice surface with the lights dim, Mombourquette-Sampson explained.

“We test drove it ourselves, to make sure, on the safety side of things, that there were enough lights lit for those to see,” she said. “We placed some posters, mainly at the beginning of the arena where individuals would walk in, some infographics for them to take a look at; to understand what’s going to happen when they come here and familiarize themselves about the arena, about putting on your skates, putting on your helmet, mask wearing, and stuff.”

The municipality also contacted autism support coordinate Natalie Stevens, with the Strait Area Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia, who gave her thumbs-up to the proposal. She said it’s important to note that the skate is free.

“They’re doing it for any special need, so that’s really good,” Stevens said. “For the public skates, usually they’re crowded and they’re louder, people are whizzing by. A lot of people with sensory issues can’t tolerate that kind of stuff.”

Stevens is hoping other local municipalities, like the Town of Port Hawkesbury, will consider offering the program. She is confident that once word gets out, and since it’s a good time of day and a workable day of the week, it will attract public interest, and become a part of the routine for those with special needs who require a consistent routine.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Stevens said.

“It gives them some recreation, gives them some exercise, gives them something to look forward to once a week. A lot of the things that Autism Nova Scotia does, we just do them once a month, so this gives a nice structure.”

For the first skate, Mombourquette-Sampson said the intent was to use the hour, not just for skating, but getting participants familiar with their surroundings.

“It may be new for some of these participants, and that’s okay too,” she said. “Some may skate for the full hour, some may skate for only 10 minutes, and that’s okay. All we’re looking for is to create a safe, friendly environment for those that have those sensory needs.”

Mombourquette-Sampson is hopeful that if they are able to get healthy crowds, they can continue to offer the sense-friendly for the rest of this season, then put into regular rotation for the 2021-2022 season.

Thus far, some families have pre-registered, but with the necessity of limiting the size of the group to no more than 30, Mombourquette-Sampson said it’s important that the skate not have too many participants.

“We’re hopeful that the numbers will take off and we’ll have close to 30 on the ice,” Mombourquette-Sampson said. “Maybe by the end of the ice season, we’ll get there with the numbers.”

And if the demand is high for the skate, Mombourquette-Sampson said the municipality can look at expanding the time of the skate, or holding a second skate on Thursday.

Mombourquette-Sampson added that it’s important that such events are provided to those with sensitivities.

“Children who have these sensitivities don’t necessarily get to do a lot of activities with their own siblings, maybe their own family, so if we’re able to reduce all of these barriers that they have, then they have a safe, comfortable place to go to participate with their families.”