When Jillian Nelson goes to the Minnesota State Fair, she comes prepared. She brings fidget toys and noise-canceling headphones. She scouts places to catch breaks from the chaos, like the Fraser Sensory Building or the cool, quiet Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum — "my secret hiding place," Nelson said. Instead of navigating parking, the 41-year-old St. Paul woman parks at a friend's house and rides her mobility scooter the final mile to the entrance.
"The disability community," Nelson said, "is really good at preparing."
One morning this week, Nelson braved an area that's typically nightmarish for people with autism: The Mighty Midway, home to carnival barkers, blinking lights, an onslaught of stimulation that can upend her day. She describes autism like being stuck under the waterfall on a lazy river: The whole world can feel like it's crashing down on you. But on this day, it was calm.
The Minnesota State Fair is chaos by design. That makes it an especially challenging place for people with disabilities: People with autism can be overwhelmed. People with vision impairments can navigate the fair via GPS but can be flummoxed by wandering fairgoers. People with hearing impairments can feel like they're swimming in constant noise. Parents who need universal changing tables for older children with disabilities can find themselves changing their child on the dirty floor of a bathroom — though the fair is improving that situation.
But this week marked the first sensory-friendly morning at the Mighty Midway and the Kidway, with reduced lights and noises. Nelson zipped past the Grandstand in her mobility scooter; Nelson also has fibromyalgia and a soft-tissue connectivity disorder, so walking long distances can be debilitating. She steered around two cheese-curd-eating women blocking a curb cut. When Nelson crossed into the midway, she smiled.
"It's so peaceful!" she said. "My little brother is on the spectrum, and when he was a kid he'd just run away right when he saw the midway. He would have loved this! Seeing things become accessible for the first time — this is history."
People with disabilities have diverse needs. Noise can be debilitating for Nelson, but Tram Nguyen — whose 8-year-old daughter, Sadie, has a chromosomal anomaly that means she is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair — says the noise and music are Sadie's favorite parts.
Accessibility improvements at the fair mirror how American society has changed since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than 30 years ago: curb cuts, accessible bathrooms, ramps and more.
There are American Sign Language interpreters at eight shows a day. Last year was the first time the fair had audio description and captioning for things like the lumberjack show and Minnesota Historical Society's History On-A-Schtick. The sensory building has weighted blankets and headphones for people experiencing sensory overload.
"We're known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together, and our goal is to make it so all people can come and enjoy a full day at the fair," said Christine Noonan, the fair's marketing director who is in charge of accessibility.
When Patty Hughes, of Lino Lakes, took her daughter, Isla, to the fair when she was little, she wrote her phone number on her daughter's arm. Isla, who is deaf and has cochlear implants, can't hear anything behind her.
"If she did get lost, you can never just call her name," Hughes said.
They lost her once, when Isla was 4. Her grandfather found her admiring chickens.
Now an eighth grader at the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Isla showed a breeding trio of her own bantam Rhode Island red chickens this year. The noises — whirring fans, public-address announcements, background chatter — make the fair a challenge. American Sign Language interpreters helped Isla show her chickens at the 4-H competition.
Steve Utgaard, a 41-year-old from Maplewood with a developmental disability, loves the fair: sweet corn and Sweet Martha's, midway prizes and deep-fried pickles. What he doesn't like is finding a place to change his adult diapers.
When he went to the fair Monday with Special Olympics friends, he wasn't near the mobile adult-sized changing table, so he changed in a bathroom near the Haunted House. A group stared and laughed. Utgaard, embarrassed, ignored them.
Paivy Ballayan, a 40-year-old Roseville man who is blind, went to the fair several days this year. He loves the breeze in the Skyglider and riding the Great Big Wheel at sunset. He navigates using Google Maps and an accessibility app, Lazarillo. Before going to the fair, he made a list of where he wanted to visit — from which entrance to which root beer stand — but spotty internet access can disrupt his visit. He also wishes there were more and better street markings, like yellow lines he could follow.
The hardest part, though, is people.
"The crowd is an issue, but it's something I'm used to," he said. "The biggest obstacle I have at the fair is running into people standing in the middle of nowhere."
Improving infrastructure is the first step, disability advocates say. The harder step is changing mindsets.
On a recent day, Nguyen and her daughter, Sadie, used the mobile universal changing table near Giggles' Campfire Grill. Nguyen and her friend, Sarah St. Louis — whose 12-year-old son, Ezra, has a traumatic brain injury — had lobbied the Legislature to pass a universal changing table bill this session, requiring them in new construction in public buildings. The tables are costly, so the mobile version was a temporary option.
"This means they can go to the State Fair," St. Louis said. "But then there's navigating people. It's a huge thing. Even with a wheelchair, people walk right in front of you. Ableism is a huge problem."
Nguyen and St. Louis wheeled their children onto Randall Avenue and into the thick of the crowd. An umbrella shaded Sadie from midday sun. Nguyen spooned her daughter frozen custard. It was about time to go.
"As it gets busier and busier, it gets harder and harder," Nguyen said. "She's fading. The heat is getting to her. But I'm glad to be here. Everyone feels better if they're out in the community. I'm so glad we have that choice."