Sensory Friendly versus Sensory Accessible


In the world of events, accessibility has only recently been part of the planning process, and even then, usually only mobility is at the forefront. Those with less visible disabilities, such as Autism, hearing differences or low vision are usually left out of the accessibility design process. However, as venues and events start broadening their knowledge on inclusion and disability, more terms around sensory processing disabilities have popped up.  Terms such as sensory friendly, sensory inclusive and sensory accessible are often used interchangeably, even when they create significantly different levels of accessibility.

The International Board of Sensory Accessibility defines Sensory Friendly as an event that has altered the sensory aspects of an event or production – usually a decrease in volume, turning up of the “house lights” and sometimes turning off flashing or strobing lights, for a specific showing or period of time.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic idea, and provides an opportunity for those who may otherwise have no access to an event. At Sensory Access we have worked on Sensory Friendly showings with Disney, various Broadway theaters, Expo Dubai 2020, and many Museums; I love the amazing community feeling when those who often do not get to enjoy such events experience one together. I also love working with production crews to create the changes needed for an event to be Sensory Friendly, as it is usually a learning experience for all.  However, sensory friendly events do have some limitations, and on closer inspection, don’t actually create inclusion as much as singular opportunity.

I have Hyperacusis – an auditory processing impairment that significantly increases my reaction to many sounds due to central auditory processing issues. For me, certain (mostly-high pitched and complex) sound environments are instantly debilitating if I am not prepared. While those with hearing loss struggle to hear and make sense of sounds depending on their hearing loss, those with hyperacusis struggle because certain sounds create physical pain or make it difficult to differentiate sounds. While one experience is related to not hearing enough and one is hearing too much, both result in loss of sound processing and inability to experience sound adequately to enjoy an experience.  There are a variety of other hyper/hypo sensitive neurological  impairments, and due to this breadth of differences, it is difficult to find a simple solution.

If we go back to the idea of Universal Design, the general theme is “the design of environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”  In regard to inclusion, this means we create accessibility at the outset; we design for it, plan for it, and implement it is as part of the process – not as a special occurrence or add-on after the fact. Again, while Sensory-Friendly events or times are amazing at grocery stores, movie theaters and museums, it is important to remember that at times this causes exclusion versus the very inclusion it is intended for.  The busy family with an autistic son, adhd daughter and visual-sensitive mother may not be able to attend the museum at 8am on Saturday morning, the grocery store at 9am on Tuesdays and the one special showing of Swan Lake.  They, like every other family, may want or need to attend events with the rest of their community.  

Universal Design offers the solution of creating an equitable experience.  How do we do that with events? Surprisingly, not through turning down the sound, but rather, through knowledge. A Sensory Accessible event is one that provides individuals with the knowledge of what an experience holds before experiencing it, specifically the sensory experience.  Knowing the timing and possible impact of each sensory experience is incredibly helpful in allowing affected individuals to adequately prepare themselves; by either choosing to avoid a certain moment of an experience or utilizing sensory tools such as headphones, sunglasses and more. Without such knowledge, a community experience becomes a minefield of overwhelming sensory experiences that could easily have been avoided by providing by a Sensory Narrative. The beauty is that everyone can benefit from knowing what to expect, and those attending an event can choose to educate themselves ahead of time or to enjoy the surprise inherent in most events. The autistic mom, the sensory sensitive child, the adolescent with Down syndrome, the anxious young man and the veteran with PTSD will now all be able to attend an event or experience WITH their community, not just during special times. 

From the venue perspective, a sensory accessible broadway season, museum exhibition or musical experience is usually much more feasible and inexpensive than editing the actual production or experience for  Sensory Friendly version.  When we create accessibility as part of the original design, creating inclusion in the true sense of the word becomes easy, as it is about preparing the guest for the experience. The ideal combination of course, is to offer general sensory accessibility and also offer a Sensory Friendly version if feasible.

Sensory Narratives are one simple way to collect and communicate the sensory aspect of an experience with your guests. Out of all the sensory tools we utilize, these are the most comprehensive way to allow individuals to prepare themselves for an experience.  For large scale events, Sensory Rating cards are an effective tool to quickly describe sensory data in one page for a quick snapshot of sensory information. Want to know more about how these tools can work at your event? Drop a comment below!

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