By Emily Williams
Across the Birmingham community and throughout the country, you’ll most likely cross paths with a special version of the KultureCity emblem – a sign or decal featuring the organization’s heart-shaped logo wearing headphones above the words “Sensory Inclusive Location.”
The designation recognizes that officials with the venue have taken steps to train workers to deal with sensory overload and to offer tools to help people who have sensory needs and their families, such as people on the autism disorder spectrum.
The Vestavia Hills-based organization at its annual KultureBall, to be held June 22 at the Hoover Metropolitan Complex’s Finley Center, will be raising funds for and celebrating many initiatives, including its sensory-inclusive certification.
The organization has noticeably changed the culture surrounding autism awareness and acceptance, according to Vestavia Hills resident Diana Knight.
Knight first heard about KultureCity in 2016 through a running friend who knew fellow Vestavia Hills resident Michele Kong. Kong and her husband, Julian Maha, founded KultureCity in 2013.
Knight’s first experience with the organization was attending the second annual KultureBall.
The KultureCity mission, to create a culture of acceptance and inclusion for people with “unique abilities,” captured Knight.
She and her husband, Greg, moved to Birmingham 16 years ago with their 10-year-old son, Jack, who is on the autism spectrum.
“I had no experience with someone with autism before Jack,” Knight said, but through her son she learned much.
At 26, Jack is a gentle soul, according to his mother. He loves people, running, furry friends and Disney movies.
“He has taught me patience, a characteristic I was lacking,” Knight said. “He taught me how to look at the world in a whole new way and, unfortunately, the situation of having a child with special abilities has taught me that society is not always understanding or friendly.”
For the Knight family of Vestavia Hills, the sensory-inclusive movement among local venues has been a game-changer.
KultureCity’s Sensory Inclusive Certification program was born from efforts to make venues around Birmingham sensory-friendly.
According to KultureCity COO Uma Srivastava, the first KultureCity-designated sensory-inclusive venue in the country was The Birmingham Zoo. The zoo began to be sensory-friendly by opening early on a specific day for families and children with autism.
“The issue with having that venue open early one day a week is that a lot of people might not be able to make it on that one day,” Srivastava said. “They have other things going on.”
Venues have to go a few steps further to be truly sensory inclusive.
“One in six individuals have a sensory issue,” she said. “This doesn’t just affect people with autism. These features are catering to a larger community.”
People who have sensory needs include individuals with forms of dementia, Down syndrome, PTSD and more.
To be sensory inclusive, venues and organizations have to have at least 50% of their staff trained to handle sensory overloads. “Many try for 100%,” Srivastava added.
In addition, the facilities have sensory friendly bags available, supplied by KultureCity, that can be handed out to families as they enter. Things such as headphones and fidget spinners, tools to help prevent an overload, are in these bags.
“This is great because, while a family may have their own bags, they could have left them at home or in the car, especially when they are traveling,” Srivastava said.
Even Libraries Can Adapt
Among the 25 local venues that are designated sensory inclusive is the Homewood Public Library.
Laura Tucker, head of children’s services, said the work began in 2016, when library patron Mallory Pritchard began working with KultureCity.
“She came and talked with me about training our children’s staff on autism awareness and acceptance,” Tucker said.
It was an opportunity that she was excited to pursue.
“We have been partnering for years with the Horizons school by having interns come into the library to learn library skills on a volunteer basis,” Tucker said. “So, this was another logical step to help support our community more broadly.”
The process involved members of the KultureCity team doing in-house training with the department staff.
“They also helped me develop a Sensory Storytime and outreach program, which has been an instrumental part of our programming ever since 2016,” she said.
“For all of our storytimes, we put out a bin of ‘Quiet Toys for Busy Hands’ for those that need to walk around and fidget during storytimes.”
KultureCity also provided the library with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted lap mats and fidget toys that are available on request. Though Tucker said they aren’t used every day, the staff is always glad to have them for those occasional situations where a patron needs them.
The organization is continuing its efforts to make more venues inclusive and enhance the features available for sensory needs.
KultureCity unveiled its first sensory room at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport in February. The room has low lighting, activity panels and soft furnishings to reduce anxiety.
The great thing about the sensory-inclusive movement, in the Knight family’s opinion, is that the features don’t hinder the experience of anybody visiting the venues.
“It is wonderful because this program doesn’t take away from anyone else’s experience,” Knight said. “It actually makes it possible for those with sensory needs to experience all their community has to offer.
“It has opened doors for Jack to experience so many new things. We are truly grateful for the work of KultureCity.”