It was just over a year ago during Autism Awareness night at a home Cleveland Cavaliers game that the Quicken Loans Arena staff was faced with a significant new issue. A young fan with non-verbal autism wanted to watch his hometown heroes play, but the boy communicated through an iPad that had an external speaker attached to his body.
The arena staff, unequipped to address such a delicate matter, gave the young fan a choice: Remove his device or be denied access. The spine-chilling ultimatum not only robbed the boy of his voice, but his dignity.
His mother tweeted her displeasure at the Cavaliers. How could they treat her son like an outcast? Through social media, the team reached back out to the family.
When upper management caught wind of the quandary, they were determined to fix the problem once and for all. No one should ever feel excluded at any event, certainly not at the Q.
On Thursday night, Quicken Loans Arena revealed itself as a sensory inclusive arena, the first in all of American professional sports.
Twenty percent of the population, just like that young boy, suffer from a disability, and 80 percent of that 20 percent — or four of every 25 people — have disabilities you cannot see.
Sensory inclusion means the the arena and its staff cater to those dealing with conditions like autism, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, and early onset dementia. They provide a sensory bag, with items like sound-bending headphones, fidget toys, weighted lap pads, and a feelings thermometer. In the event the scene becomes too overwhelming, those guests can enjoy the night in the Q’s sensory room, a safe space designed to ease the mind and calm the senses.
“This is the very first time that you’re reaching out to a population that any league has never tapped into,” said Julian Maha, founder and CEO of the Kulture City company that trained Quicken Loans Arena team members. “This is actually saying you guys are our fans as well, and we’re going to include you in everything that we do.”
Not too long ago, Maha and his wife took their nine-year-old son to an Atlanta Hawks game. Their son loves basketball dearly, but he too deals with non-verbal autism and has heightened sensitivity to sound.
Ten minutes into the game, Maha’s family had to leave. The noise had overwhelmed his boy and they needed a break. But Philips Arena, like many professional sports stadiums worldwide, has stringent exit-entrance policies. Once they left, the family couldn’t re-enter.
That day, Maha knew he had to find an answer not just for his family, but for others like them throughout the nation. Now, he’s parlayed the dismay from that night into an opportunity to create a better environment for sports fans.
“We wanted to figure out a way to really create change in our communities,” Maha said in a phone interview with SB Nation. “Despite our external differences, all of us long to belong to a community. It boils down to that essence of what makes us human.”
Maha happened to bump into a member of the Cavaliers upper management on a flight. “Serendipity,” he called it. The two discussed inclusion, and how Kulture City could help tackle the Q’s issue head-on. He suggested providing inclusive experiences at all venues, including sporting arenas, waters no one had tread before.
Some venues provide sensory-friendly spaces during one-off events with smaller crowds and softer noises than at NBA games. Maha wanted to promote daily accessibility at sporting events for all suffering from autism, PTSD, Parkinson’s Disease, early onset dementia, and other disabilities.
To do that, he had to start at the fundamental level: Education.
Maha and his Kulture City team observed the total fan experience at Quicken Loans Arena during last year’s NBA Finals. They began secondary analyses in November, where they trained 2,000 Quicken Loans Arena team members. The three-hour training session dragged into overtime, when the “students” stayed late to get a full grasp of sensory inclusion.
“After the training, most people take off, but the staff at the Q stayed for about 30-35 minutes asking questions after the fact,” Maha said. “They wanted to make sure that every guest that comes to the arena gets treated and accepted equally.”
The Quicken Loans Arena has now created an inclusive experience for its new audience. Guests walk in and have the option of grabbing a sensory bag. If they don’t take it upon entrance, they can always pick one up during the game.
The arena staff, which now features 500 trained, full-time assistants, is always on hand to assist in the aisles. Inside the bag, there’s a lanyard. Wearing it immediately lets staff know you may be non-verbal or have sensory disabilities. You’re given a feelings thermometer: If you can’t verbalize your feelings, you can check off boxes on the card and hand it to a staff member.
“A lot of folks that are on the spectrum or have sensory sensitivities can’t always communicate the way they want,” Patrick Scanlon, director of fan experience at Quicken Loans Arena, said in a phone interview with SB Nation. “So the guest can communicate through icons and verbiage that’s on these cards to let us know how they’re feeling, if they’re happy, if they’re content, if they’re tired, if they’re sad, if they’re frustrated.”
“Electric” is a word oft-used to describe an NBA atmosphere. Sometimes, that environment can be overwhelming.
In the bag are sound-bending headphones to keep guests calm. There are toys to play with to keep the hands occupied. There’s a weighted lap blanket if one needs that sense of security.
Sometimes, it takes a breath of fresh air. New policies allow guests to leave and take a break without the fear of restricted re-entry.
Finally, the new sensory room serves as a safe haven. It calms the senses to prevent an overload. There’s a bubble wall that calms the eyes. There’s a puro listening station to soothe the ears. And there’s a “sensory wall” that appeals to the touch.
The Q’s new community sensory room is the first of its kind in the United States.
More sensory inclusive arenas are coming
The NBA’s league offices have been “incredibly receptive” to the idea, Scanlon told SB Nation. In fact, the league wants to spread it to the remaining 29 teams, he said.
Scanlon doesn’t have children dealing with health issues, though his father spent 20 years in the Air Force and 20 years in the post office. For him, his passion stems from educating the public on the issues they might not see.
Scanlon hops on a monthly call with 29 other teams, where they share best practices in elevating the guest experience. He admitted that he didn’t want the other teams to know what Quicken Loans Arena was up to until it had been rolled out and implemented. Now, his focus shifted to spreading the knowledge he’s picked up over the past months and helping the rest of the league get on board.
“We want your experience, no matter where you are as an NBA fan, to be the same and more importantly, to be inclusive, no matter what city you live in,” he said. “We’re seeing people come back and say, ‘This is amazing because now I can take my son to a Cavs game, or I can bring my family to a Cavs game.
“That means the world to us.”