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Sensory-inclusive experiences open college sports to more fans

Nikki Fogarty, a senior sprinter at Stony Brook who helps on the security team for athletics events, received training on how to help those with special needs at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. Stony Brook University photos

Pyrotechnics, loud music and light shows allure many fans on game day. But for some, the added effects can be overwhelming.

This challenge recently came to the attention of a Stony Brook alumnus and former athletics department employee who understands both facility operations and sensory difficulties. As a result, the university trained staff on how to identify and interact with individuals with sensory challenges and equipped guest services with tools that can make the game experience more pleasant. As a result, Stony Brook became home to one of a handful of college facilities certified as “sensory inclusive.”

“We felt it was very important to be at the forefront of this and create an environment that allows all fans to have a great experience,” Stony Brook Athletics Director Shawn Heilbron says.

The school recognized the need after former Assistant Director of Athletics Antony Bonavita, now senior vice president of facility operations for Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, learned about a family with an autistic son who had difficulty at the Cavaliers’ home arena. Bonavita worked with local organizations to train his staff to better support those with autism and special needs. Then he connected with KultureCity, a nonprofit organization that ensures individuals with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and unique abilities are included in their communities.

After working to make Quicken Loans Arena more inclusive of people with sensory struggles, Bonavita was eager to bring the idea to his alma mater, as well.

“We have a son who is autistic, so this means a lot to us on many levels,” says Bonavita, who worked for Stony Brook athletics for 13 years. “My wife, Jaclyn, is also an alum and played basketball there, so we have deep roots in Stony Brook.”

KultureCity has so far certified facilities at four universities as sensory inclusive — Stony Brook, Adelphi, Boise State and North Carolina State.

As a member of Stony Brook’s security team for athletics events, student-athlete Nikki Fogarty participated in the training. A psychology major with aspirations to become a behavioral specialist, Fogarty appreciates the Seawolves’ efforts.

“When individuals with a disability come into a room, they’re kind of pushed to the side,” she says. “So the fact that Stony Brook took the time to understand them and understand how to help them is amazing.”

Tips for Your Campus

Inform the front lines: An arena’s guest services staff is the most likely to help diffuse situations or handle crises, so training them is an important first step. In KultureCity’s training modules, the staff learns what a sensory need is and how to approach someone who is having a meltdown. To be certified as sensory inclusive, Stony Brook guest services staff watched a training video and passed a quiz.

Provide vital resources: A game-day experience could be ruined for a family that forgets noise-canceling headphones. But when Stony Brook approached its first home football game, it was equipped with sensory bags, which included noise-reducing headphones, fidget toys and cue cards. The headphones allow individuals to filter out the noise so they can focus on the main sound. The cue cards are double-sided with images and colors so that whether it’s a bathroom break or food that is needed, guest services staff members can better understand. Lanyards also are provided for families to wear if they choose, helping guest services staff more easily identify that they may require a sensory need.

Find a supporter: Antony Bonavita’s family made a gift to enable Stony Brook to access training and resources through KultureCity, and Bonavita encourages other interested colleges and universities to reach out to their alumni and fan base to find individuals hoping to fill these needs. “Don’t let money be an obstacle,” Bonavita says. “Find a resource. Whether it be a nonprofit or a donor like myself, somewhere along the line someone has an autistic child or a reason they want to help support this at a different level.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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