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Sports Teams Acknowledging Fan Needs with Sensory-Inclusive Initiatives

22 Aug, 2018

By: Michael Popke

When the NBA’s 2018 preseason schedule tips off next month, at least 19 of the league’s 29 arenas will offer sensory-friendly spaces that will make the game-day experience less overwhelming for children with autism spectrum disorder and other intellectual and developmental challenges.

Thanks to the NBA’s partnership with KultureCity, a Birmingham, Ala.-based nonprofit organization that aims to help people “rethink accessibility to create a community of acceptance and inclusion for all individuals of unique abilities,” more than two-thirds of the league’s arenas will be “sensory-inclusive” this fall. They include American Airlines Arena in Miami, Staples Center in Los Angeles and United Center in Chicago.

Last April, Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, sponsored Autism Awareness Night and introduced a “sensory room” with elements focused on stimulating or calming specific senses.

“Imagine if your life was like being [i]n the front row of a rock concert,” Holly Mero-Bench, director of the Vivint Gives Back program, which helps children with intellectual disabilities through technology, told CNNin April. “It would be pretty challenging going about your day-to-day life — let alone to a basketball game where things are loud and chaotic.”

Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, added that sensory input such as bright lights, loud sounds, big crowds and a lot of people talking or shouting at once can overwhelm people with autism. They need a space to get away from it all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and boys are four times more likely to have ASD than girls.

Sensory rooms also are available at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden I Center in Sacramento, Calif., and Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. For more information about how to create a sensory room in your facility, click here.

Late last month in Detroit, officials with Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park announced both venues are now sensory inclusive, thanks to a partnership with KultureCity.

Comerica will be the first Major League Baseball ballpark certified by KultureCity while Little Caesars Arena is the first combination NBA/National Hockey League arena with such a certification, according to a local television station’s news team.

“On top of that, event staff at both facilities are trained and certified by leading medical professionals to recognize guests with sensory needs, and also how to handle a situation where someone has sensory overload,” according to the report. “Sensory bags, equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads will be available to all guests, and fans will have access to sensory areas if they need a quieter and more secure environment.”

“‘Sensory inclusive’ refers to a space that offers permanent, daily accommodations for those with sensory needs,” Todd Jacobson, NBA senior vice president of social responsibility, told Understood.org, a website that covers learning and attention issues. Sensory inclusiveness benefits not only people with autism, but also those with sensory processing issues, ADHD and Down syndrome.

According to Understood.org, here is what prompted the pro sports facilities’ movement toward sensory inclusivity:

In 2016, Jeff and Amy Belles were attending an autism awareness event at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena with their son, Carson. Carson uses a speech device to communicate.

When the device set off the metal detector, Carson was asked to remove it. That’s when things took a turn.

The parents told CNN that security yelled for them to “get a hold of that kid” when Carson had a sensory meltdown. The Belles later received an apology from Antony Bonavita, the arena’s senior VP of facility operations. Bonavita, who also has a child with sensory issues, was disappointed in how the situation was handled.

It was Bonavita who initiated the partnership with KultureCity. He wanted to make the arena more accepting for all families.

“We saw an opportunity to move beyond awareness toward inclusion and acceptance,” explained Jacobson, “and to make NBA events and venues more accessible to any person facing a sensory disorder.”

If facilities are not going all-in with sensory inclusion, some are sponsoring efforts to raise awareness of the issue.

The York (Pa.) Revolution, the reigning champions of the independent  Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, will host a Sensory Friendly Night on Aug. 15, presented by Autism York.

The pre- and in-game events at PeoplesBank Park will feature fewer public address announcements, reduced volume from the ballpark speakers and fewer motion graphics on the video boards — all in an effort to make the usually stimuli-filled environment of a professional baseball game more welcoming to those with autism and other disorders who are adversely affected by that kind of stimulation, team officials say.

The Revolution’s furry blue mascot, DownTown, also will reduce his activities and wait for children to approach him that night, rather than actively greet as many people as he can.

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