In early 2016 Amy Belles and her family, including her 12-year-old son Carson, attended a Lake Erie Monsters game at Quicken Loans Arena. It was Carson’s first hockey game. His school, KidsLink School, offered discounted tickets, and the Belles figured they’d give the event a shot.
Carson has autism and apraxia, and uses an app called Proloquo installed on an iPod Touch, outfitted with a Bluetooth speaker, to communicate. He wears it on his body with a harnesslike apparatus.
As they entered the arena, the device caught the attention of security. Belles recalls that when her husband tried to remove it, Carson directed “two little head-butts” toward his dad. A security employee pointed out that interaction negatively, rather than recognizing it for what it was — a way Carson reacts to an unfamiliar or stressful situation.
After reaching her seat, Belles, an adaptive physical education teacher, realized she had to speak up. “Something just told me, ‘No. This can’t happen,’ ” she recalls. “ ’This can’t happen again tonight. Let alone ever again.’ ”
That night, Belles spoke with a security manager. She also later reached out with a tweet. That caught the attention of arena brass, who realized they could do more, says Antony Bonavita, senior vice president of facility operations.
Belles’ complaint led to direct action. She teamed up with Alabama-based nonprofit KultureCity for sensory inclusivity training for arena employees. In March, KultureCity certified Quicken Loans Arena as the NBA’s first sensory inclusive arena.
You might think events at The Q — the Humongotron’s whizbang graphics and flames, or noisy crowds — are harmless. But what many do not realize is that game time fun can cause anxiety or distress in others.
Visitors with sensory sensitivities can now obtain a free sensory bag that has noise-canceling headphones, a weighted blanket and other things to help them deal with the overload of arena events, as well as a lanyard that tells employees a customer has sensitivities.
Separately, in March, the arena opened a dedicated Quiet Space Sensory Room where people can go if they are overstimulated. In the months after the room opened, Bonavita says two or three people use it per night.
“We bring in resources to help us make sure that we’re looking at the world as holistically as possible,” says Bonavita. “We’re being as accommodating and customer-friendly as we can.”
The Q is a powerful example of an organization becoming more inclusive. But as the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 27 this month, the burden is still on those with disabilities, and their friends and loved ones, to be their own advocates. It’s tiring to constantly have to prove that accommodations are needed.
It’s time to move beyond compliance as an afterthought. Clevelanders must embrace cultural change and make accommodations available proactively, before people ask for them, not after.
“Everybody knows somebody [with a disability],” says ADA Cleveland founding member Melanie Hogan, who’s also the executive director of Linking Employment, Abilities and Potential. “Everybody has somebody in their family at some point in time [with a disability], because the definition is very broad.”
It’s estimated that one in five Americans has a disability. The ADA hasn’t magically made the United States or Cleveland, however, more accessible.
I know this myself. As someone with cerebral palsy who can’t stand for long periods or walk long distances, Cleveland sometimes feels like an unfriendly place. Finding close, accessible and affordable parking downtown can be challenging. Older buildings often have steps leading to the front entrances or bathrooms located down or up stairs. On a recent visit to Coventry, I had to maneuver around a curb ramp that was half-demolished and treacherously uneven.
Some eateries also have bar seating or high chairs, which can be uncomfortable and inaccessible. Seating is one thing evaluated during an ADA compliance review, says Michelle Heyer, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern district of Ohio. Compliance reviews are an occasional part of regular business and aren’t driven by complaints.
Heyer points out that planning for compliance is an advantage of Cleveland’s new construction. Her department even has an open-door policy to help builders with questions. “We’d rather work with them proactively to prevent problems,” says Heyer.
Reviews are part of a larger proactive shift.
There’s ADA Cleveland, a coalition of 19 organizations launched in 2014 that concentrates on education and advocacy. In the fall, it is planning a panel discussion on employment inclusion. ADA Cleveland member Maximum Accessible Housing of Ohio is also working with University Circle Inc. and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland on an initiative to increase universal design access in University Circle. That effort includes a series to inform neighborhood businesses.
“It really is about having the general public understand that people with disabilities are part of the fabric of their communities,” Hogan says.
When everyone speaks up, Cleveland can change. It could be as simple as talking to a manager or calling the city when you notice a damaged curb.
“Large portions of the population who are not considered disabled are able to benefit from some of these [accessibility] measures, like closed captioning in a restaurant,” says assistant U.S. attorney Bridget Brennan. “These benefits that are part of the ADA affect all of us.”
Despite that, the ADA is often unfairly maligned. Some think that compliance with the law is financially onerous. Getting lawyers involved is certainly justified sometimes. Even Quicken Loans Arena reached an agreement with the Justice Department in 2012.
As a result, The Q implemented changes including closed captioning and accessible seating choices. Bonavita says the patron went to the Justice Department before reaching out to the arena. Experts agree, however, that legal action should be a last resort.
“A lot of it is handled with just a phone call to make the business owner aware of the problem, and then it gets worked out,” Heyer says. “Our goal is not to sue people — our goal is to bring people into compliance with the ADA.”
Twenty-seven years after the ADA was made law, it’s frustrating when buildings and businesses aren’t accessible to all. So is the fact that someone could mitigate many problems with a watchful eye and a cellphone.
To spur that culture shift, we should follow Quicken Loans Arena’s example. Since the training, Belles has seen a new mentality there. At a Cleveland Cavaliers game, Belles was moved to tears after seeing an usher tell a father about the sensory bags.
I too have had positive experiences with the wheelchairs The Q offers to and from seats. When I saw Justin Timberlake in December 2013, the attendant even pushed me outside, in frigid weather, and waited with me as my husband picked me up.
That above-and-beyond gesture sticks with me. I know I’ll always be treated with respect at the arena. It also illustrates an important cultural shift, where accessibility is built into everyday operations. We should all embrace that forward-thinking mindset.
As the ADA heads toward 30, Cleveland has an opportunity to become a city leading the charge for accessibility — and being a welcoming place for all.