Now Arena events just got easier for visitors with sensory issues
All Elite Wrestling not only provided Hoffman Estates' Now Arena with its first indoor events since the venue's renaming and the start of the pandemic, it also left behind a permanent sensory room for people who need a respite during crowded and noisy events.
Located within the Guest Services suite near the entrance to the former Sears Centre, the AEW Sensory Room provides a calming environment through both noise cancellation and its visual and lighting design.
Ideally suited for one person at a time, the room is intended to help someone who can center themselves within 15 minutes while feeling overwhelmed by the sensory stresses of an event.
Though AEW and Now Arena officials agreed on the need for the accommodation, it was the organization KultureCity that provided the expertise needed for its design. The Alabama-based nonprofit works to provide sensory accessibility and acceptance for those with "invisible disabilities" such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, dementia and the effects of strokes.
Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod said that while management of the village-owned arena knew that sensory issues affect a percentage of visitors, they sought out the know-how of KultureCity to address the situation.
"We're very excited about this. I think it's going to make a difference for people," McLeod said.
KultureCity has delivered training and equipment to numerous stadiums and arenas across the Chicago area and the nation, but the Chicago White Sox's Guaranteed Rate Field is the only other in the region so far to have a specifically designed sensory room. KultureCity also works with the United Center and Wintrust Arena in Chicago and the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
Now Arena has been "Sensory Inclusive Certified" since 2019 through staff training and the KultureCity "sensory bags" that include noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, weighted lap pads and verbal cue cards that those with sensory needs can use to help communicate their emotional state.
AEW Champion Ricky Starks, who attended the dedication of the room last week, said such a facility would have helped him with the undiagnosed sensory issues he experienced around the age 15.
"It would have been an ease to have something like this," Starks said. "I'm all for this."
KultureCity Executive Director Uma Srivastava said a confirmed medical diagnosis isn't needed for a sensory sensitivity to be real. In fact, even among a small group at least one person is likely to have some level of sensitivity.
The location and layout of the room at Now Arena provided is almost ideal, Srivastava added.
Alexa Williamson, who's in charge of customer service at the Allstate Arena and Rosemont Theatre, said her collaboration with KultureCity has been slowed slightly by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the arena has a wind-down room for people feeling overwhelmed at an event, and sometimes the availability of an empty suite.
Children's events tend to have a greater need as a family may not be aware of a child's sensitivity to crowds, noise and lights until an event is under way, Williamson said. A loud pro wrestling or Monster Jam event may also trigger unanticipated anxieties, she added.
Craig Kuehne, director of marketing for the Now Arena, said AEW's history of looking after its fans seemed to create a natural fit for the pro wrestling promotion's sponsorship of the new sensory room.
"I think their fan base tends to lend themselves to that," Kuehne said.
Though the sensory room wasn't used during the first AEW event this month, Kuehne believes many families will take comfort just knowing it's available.