What Is a Sensory-Friendly Vaccination Clinic?

As more people receive vaccinations, like the COVID-19 vaccines, many people experience difficulty with the accessibility of vaccine clinics. Challenges include the confusion of booking websites, lackluster instructions when entering the vaccination clinic or difficulty navigating around the vaccine site. For a large portion of the population, the sensory-rich aspects of vaccination clinics are a barrier to vaccination.

This blog post highlights the components of standard vaccination clinics that are problematic for people who experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload. Read on for strategies to create a sensory-friendly vaccine clinic. Additionally, this blog post will share knowledge and first-hand experience from a paramedic working in a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

To maintain confidentiality, the paramedic interviewed for this post will be referred under the pseudonym, Carly. Currently, Carly works part-time as a paramedic in a COVID-19 drive-in vaccination clinic.

Young person sitting with mask getting a band-aid put on after receiving vaccine.

What are sensory-rich aspects of standard vaccination clinics?

There are several components of vaccination clinics that are a problem. It is important to note that people who may or may not experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload can appreciate sensory-friendly experiences and environments. For example, typically older adults or individuals with autism, PTSD or hearing loss prefer sensory-friendly spaces.

Based on Carly’s experience working at the vaccination clinic, she identified several sensory-rich aspects of standard vaccination clinics.

Crowded spaces

The first factor that Carly described that is problematic for people are the crowded areas in vaccination clinics. Although people are physically distant, there are often more people present. Vaccination clinics appointments can be fully scheduled. Therefore, most clinics are busy and crowded with people of all different ages. Ultimately, this leads to greater noise levels and difficulty feeling comfortable maintaining personal space and safe physical distances. Oftentimes, the busyness of these clinics can lead to sensory overload and high anxiety.

Bright fluorescent lighting

A common feature of most healthcare clinics is bright lighting. Although it is essential for healthcare workers to have good lighting, it can be bothersome for people. Additionally, the waiting area people sit in following their vaccine also tends to have this bright and uncomfortable lighting.

Carly notes that many vaccination clinics often do not have any sources of natural lighting. The lack of windows can be a source of anxiety for people with hypersensitivities to bright lights.

Inaccessible toilets

A final factor that Carly noted was the lack of inaccessible toilets in many vaccination clinics. For example, she shared that the drive-in vaccination clinics where she currently works only have 2 portable toilets. Therefore, this particular facility is not accessible to people who use a cane, walker or wheelchair. Additionally, if the vaccine clinic is running at full capacity, 2 toilets are insufficient. An important aspect of sensory-friendly vaccine clinics is to ensure there are accessible toilets and a sufficient number.  

What is a sensory-friendly vaccination clinic?

Sensory-friendly vaccination clinics are vaccine facilities that have been adapted to be more calming on the senses. This includes changes to the environment and the vaccine experience itself. There are several ways to make a vaccine clinic sensory-friendly. Some clinics in Canada, for example, have already begun to make efforts to make sensory-friendly vaccination clinics! Additionally, many of these strategies are easy to implement and are not costly.

Infographic describing 7 ways to create a sensory-friendly vaccination clinic.

Reduce noise

The first factor Carly suggested to help create a more sensory-friendly clinic is to reduce the noise levels. Loud environments are uncomfortable for people. Therefore, minimizing noise levels is an effective strategy to improve the accessibility of a clinic.

However, this may be difficult to do in a busy clinic. To help reduce noise, separate people into different waiting rooms. Alternatively, have certain waiting rooms be dedicated quiet zones for those who prefer quieter areas. Another strategy to reduce noise levels is to provide patients with noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. These can be effective sensory tools for people with hypersensitivity to noise.  

Furthermore, Carly explained that drive-in vaccination clinics may be beneficial for people with greater sensitivities to noise. By remaining in their vehicle for the entirety of the vaccination appointment, people feel secure in a quieter space.

Remove bright or flashing lights

Another common source of sensory overload found in vaccination clinics is lighting. It is important to reduce fluorescent and/or flashing lights. However, as previously indicated, it is essential for healthcare professionals to have appropriate lighting while vaccinating patients. Therefore, ensure natural light. Use lower lighting, if possible, in waiting and recovery rooms following the vaccination. This will reduce stress and anxiety before and after receiving a vaccine.

Doctor wearing mask giving a young person wearing a mask a vaccine.

Accessible toilets

Accessible toilets are essential for inclusion. Did you know that having the urge to use the toilet, without access, can lead to sensory overload? Therefore, ensure that there are accessible toilets that accommodate wheelchair users, for example. Furthermore, the number of toilets available is also important. No one wants to wait in a long and uncomfortable line-up. Ensure there are a) accessible toilets and b) enough toilets.

Welcome caregivers

For many people, with or without a sensory difference, receiving a vaccination is stressful. Additionally, many vaccine clinics do not allow caregivers to accompany their child, family member or friend into the clinic with them. Ultimately, this can lead to further stress and anxiety. Therefore, allowing caregivers to accompany patients is critical.

Provide food and drink

Furthermore, offering patients food and drinks, if needed, can make a clinic more sensory-friendly. Feelings of hunger and thirst can lead to sensory overload. Additionally, people may feel nauseous and sick following a vaccine. Therefore, having food and drinks available is an easy and effective strategy to create a more inclusive and comfortable space.

Develop clear and concise instructions

A common complaint that many people have with the vaccination process is the confusing instructions. Whether it is the booking process or understanding how to navigate around the clinic space, confusion is a problem. To help, ensure that there are clear and simple instructions throughout the whole vaccination process.

  • create a user-friendly booking system;
  • add easy to follow, large signage;
  • have staff on hand to direct patients around.

Create sensory-friendly hours

One of the most effective ways Carly identified to offer a sensory-friendly vaccination clinic is to create sensory-friendly hours. These are dedicated hours for people who choose them, to receive their vaccines. Oftentimes, during sensory-friendly hours, there will be fewer appointments to minimize crowds and noise levels.

Additionally, sensory-friendly hours adjust the environment to better fit the patients’ sensory preferences. For example, lights are dimmed, sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones are available, and there will be clear signage and reduced clutter.

Another important aspect of sensory-friendly hours is to adjust the sensory experience. For example, provide sensory-friendly toys or weighted lap pads. Or allow people to bring in their own sensory tools. Additionally, staff members benefit from sensory-friendly training to understand how to best interact with patients.

Create a sensory-friendly vaccination clinic with a few steps. Moreover, it is important to make the vaccine experience positive for people of all ages. Ensure people feel safe and comfortable and remove their hesitancy for future important vaccines. Consider these tips to help develop an accessible, inclusive and sensory-friendly healthcare space in your community.

Make Your Event and Location Inclusive with Training

Thank you to Carly for her contributions to this blog post! For more information on ways to make healthcare more sensory-friendly, check out this article from Association of University Centers on Disabilities, “Building an Autism Friendly Hospital: How We Started, What We Have Accomplished, and Where We Go From Here by O’Hagan et al., (2017) on Boston Medical Center’s accessibility changes 1.  

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  1. O’Hagan, B., Bays-Muchmore, C., Friedman, A., Bartolotti, L., & King, S. (2017). Building an Autism Friendly Hospital: How We Started, What We Have Accomplished, and Where We Go From Here. Association of University Centers on Disabilities. https://www.aucd.org/template/news.cfm?news_id=14472
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