A Najee Harris rushing touchdown sent Bryant-Denny Stadium into a frenzy, when his score turned a 20-point halftime deficit into a one-possession game, doing so with over 14 minutes left to bridge that gap. In that frenzy, the stadium’s lights turned red and Dixieland Delight boomed through the speakers.
Moments like those are one of many reasons the University of Alabama installed new LED lights in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the ones capable of changing colors and strobing in different patterns. They’ve added something to the game day environment that few of its collegiate competitors can replicate — but they come with a catch.
The stadium environment is already a challenging one for those with epilepsy, on the autism scale or other sensory issues, and strobing lights only add to those issues. Before it hosted its first night game of the season, UA got accreditation with KultureCity, a Birmingham-based organization with the goal of more uniform acceptance of those with sensory needs. The co-founder of KultureCity, Julian Maha M.D., spoke with The Tuscaloosa News about UA’s efforts to make the new Bryant-Denny Stadium experience more suitable for those with sensory needs.
“We actually started about five years ago when our oldest son, at the time, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum,” Maha said. “He really loved going to events like football games and basketball games and all that, but he had some really significant sensory issues. The crowds, the lights would really bug him. It was at that moment that it was kind of like, ‘How do we figure out a way to more inclusive, so that he can actually go to these events, have a good time and really feel part of the community again?’ That was really the birth of the sensory inclusion initiative.
“From a national statistics standpoint, sensory needs affect one in six individuals in the US today. This is anyone with PTSD, on the autism spectrum, dementia, if you had a previous stroke. All of them are susceptible to sensory needs. It is one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States. So all of these people have some sort of disability, but in general they have what you call an invisible disability, meaning that it’s not a disability that’s apparent like a physical disability. That’s the population that we by and large cater to.”
KultureCity has been in operation for five years now and has worked with over 450 venues across the country, Maha estimating nine or 10 of them being collegiate venues. Duke, N.C. State and Florida have also worked with KultureCity.
Maha said it’s common for venues to reach out to KultureCity after fans have reported bad experiences with sensory issues. UA took a preemptive approach.
In UA’s case, the Assistant Athletic Director of Athletics Facilities, Brandon Sevedge, was the leader of UA’s work with KultureCity.
“Once they reach out to us, then what we do is discuss the logistics of the venue: how big the venue is, exits, what the processes are, things of that nature. Then at that point we start with the training, and the training is the most important part of the initiative,” Maha said. “Our team of medical professionals has come up with a really good training that’s scaled to the general public. We recommend that anyone that’s going to potentially interact with our guests be trained on how: number one, what sensory needs are; number two, why they should care about it; number three, what the venue is doing to become more inclusive; and number four, what to do when they see someone in a sensory overload.
“Once that training is complete, we provide the venue with sensory bags. Those are the bags that have our noise cancelling headphones, they have the sunglasses that block out strobe lighting to prevent seizures, and they have other fidget tools in them. We also work with the venue in developing a social story which kind of helps those with sensory needs to know what to expect when they get to a venue, and that lives on our app. And if that venue has space we work with them on developing a quiet area.”
The bags were the product of six months of research, Maha said, including 200 individuals of varying ages and sensory needs. The study weened the bags down to the materials that were useful, wipeable — thus able to be cleaned by stadium staff and distributed at the next game — and not able to be used as a potential weapon.
Maha said UA has 50 sensory bags in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which he believes to be a great number considering the bags are checked out and returned. Maha said 12 bags were used for the first night game against Tennessee and that number doubled for the LSU game. If UA needs more bags in the future, Maha will gladly work with them to accommodate that need.
His hope is that UA and KultureCity continue working together, but in other venues.
“It’s a significant honor working with the Crimson Tide to make Bryant-Denny Stadium sensory inclusive, and we hope to extend this partnership to the basketball arena, and down the road creating sensory rooms at Bryant-Denny,” Maha said.
“They have been the gold standard. Normally our reviews can take one, two months. Bryant-Denny was a couple of weeks. It’s a credit to how they run the organization.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson