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Dr. Daniela Ferdico says there’s something about the senses…

by St. Cloud State University student, Jordan Radford

Dr. Daniela Ferdico loves traveling, gets giddy going to the airport and being on a plane. Her experiences through her unique career path and personal experiences of disability have given her the knowledge to create and maintain the nonprofit she co-founded with her daughter Izzi Ferdico, Sensory Access.

Dr. Ferdico grew up in Berlin, Germany and moved to Seattle, Washington at age 11. She attended Gonzaga for her undergraduate education in psychology and forensics. She became passionate about the brain/world interaction and obtained her doctorate in neuropsychology.

She has always been fascinated with brain functioning, specifically, the effect that sensory processing of the environment has on our behavior. Dr. Ferdico narrowed this passion in graduate school into helping people understand their strengths and areas of growth in how their brain processes different types of information.

Her first job out of doctorate school was as a neuropsychologist at a large government hospital working with roughly 25 patients a week. She learned to value working directly with people through assessment, diagnosis, and treatment to restore the level of functioning they had before the accident, injury or event that caused impairment. The lack of community from colleagues, paired with the small clinically sterile office influenced her to change her focus in the field of neuropsychology.

She met a friend who wanted to start an event planning company, and decided to help out, having always loved events. This “temporary help” grew into her owning her own event planning and design company for ten years, including creating events for movie premiers, high profile weddings and music events all over the United States. Eventually however, Dr Ferdico wanted to return to helping people, and opened her own clinic, focusing on neurodevelopmental assessment, where she actively assesses sensory and cognitive functioning. Through working with kids and their families with varying degrees of support needs, she can educate families and companies on how best to support the neurodiverse brains in the world.

The amalgamation of varied life and work experiences have prepared her for her business, Sensory Access, which focuses on helping disabled individuals better access events and trave experiences.

While working on her doctorate in the late 1990’s, she noticed that venues, organizations, schools, and public places in general claim accessibility-friendliness because of their wheelchair ramps and other accommodations based on physical disabilities. However, other forms of disabilities like neurological: hearing, visual, sensory, and cognitive are often overlooked because of their “invisibility.” The first lesson Dr. Ferdico learned in college: people and organizations seldomly think of neurodivergent people when they consider disability inclusion.

Her neurodiverse family has allowed her personal experience with accessibility in the public domain. Having an autistic son, a neurodivergent daughter, and an auditory processing condition herself, hyperacusis, meant that this was more than an area of interest, it was a way of life. She talks a lot aout how neurodivergent brains often struggle during travel. All the different sights, sounds, linguistic differences, and overall aura of varying places disrupts familiar and rigid cognitive processes. However, having a slow, safe exposure to different ways of doing things can actually improve cognitive flexibility for people with neurodivergent conditions. She gave the example of her son, who stopped speaking at a young age. Over time however, with support, slow exposure to travel, theatre and other experiences, he now leads trainings in front of large groups about his experiences as an autistic person. Dr. Ferdico bearing witness to this incremental exposure firsthand has influenced her perception of the growth that traveling offers neurodiverse people.

She then speaks about the negative connotations of “disability” based on society’s misconceptions regarding the relationship between the disabled person and the built environment. She discussed that there is nothing wrong with how a neurodivergent brain processes information; it is just different.  It is our society that is not built for different bodies and different brains, and that the idea of “Universal design”, design built for everybody is the ultimate goal.

Dr. Ferdico speaks of her work with Tourism Boards and global events, such as the World’s Fair in Dubai, which by March 2022 will have hosted an estimated 25 million guests. Sensory Access has developed the concept of a “sensory rating card” which allows individuals to have a quick preview of the sensory impact of a travel destination, event or themepark ride. The process utilizes a team of Neurodivergent auditors to provide both subjective ratings and objective measurement such as decibel levels and luminance across multiple domains of sensory impact, allowing guests to enjoy an experience safely by utilizing sensory tools when needed.

Many companies are often unaware they’re not creating or building a product with universal design and diversity in mind. They lack the lens of neurodiversity or disability to observe their creations through building inclusion on the outset by incorporating people of different backgrounds for a more diverse creation.

She hopes employers will hire more people with disabilities and consult with neurodivergent professionals rather than institutions viewing universal inclusion as an afterthought. She foresees that over the next ten years, people in the accessibility field will be more of a part of the planning process of the architectural design to create something for everyone in mind than simply one subset of people. “Every new theme park, tourist attraction and travel destination should create inclusion at the outset and needs to include neurodivergent professionals in the creation of such accessibility efforts.”

Dr. Ferdico wants to emphasize that we should move past “awareness” and into acceptance and inclusion. You can look at a person with a disability and see what they can’t do, or you can look at your building, venue or travel experience and see what barriers exist and work on removing those barriers. When you do, the diversity of guests that enjoy and share their experience with others, your financials, and the guest satisfaction have will increase exponentially.

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