By Helen Reich, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
In April 2022, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed our first “sensory friendly” concert, a long-term goal of Education Director Rebecca Whitney. Several years ago, she started to think about presenting sensory friendly concerts, but as our home was a multi-purpose, county-owned facility, we would not have been able to make the necessary modifications to the building. When we moved into our new digs, the Bradley Symphony Center, a hall we control and own, it suddenly became possible. Together with our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, Ms. Whitney helped to bring the idea to fruition.
What are “sensory friendly” or “sensory inclusive” events? They are events for children and adults with sensory needs. And who experiences sensory needs? One in six individuals has a sensory need or an invisible disability. These are people with PTSD, autism, stroke, hearing loss, or dementia, just to name a few conditions. Common sounds, lights, crowds, and even smells might not only be overwhelming, but also physically painful. How do we accommodate this audience?
It’s a long process, but not too arduous, and not very expensive to enact. First, we used just a few thousand dollars of grant money to partner with KultureCity, a national organization that was able to train and accredit us in having the necessary building modifications. Those included quiet areas (which we included for our other concert series as well), flexible seating, dimmed house lights, permission for service animals, and relaxed house rules (allowing for the audience to roam at will as long as they stay in the building).
Our very first sensory friendly concert occurred in April 2022. The orchestra provided introductory training for musicians and staff, and we used grant money to pay for our concert hosts, three actors from a local professional theater company that serves audiences who identify with physical, intellectual, or emotional disabilities. The concert had a travel theme—Symphony Spring Break—and featured American composers and music that could be connected to specific places. The hosts were charming and funny and guided the audience—just as we guide our audiences during normal children’s or family concerts—but with special attention to preparing the audience for surprises, such as loud noises.
Other concert accommodations included KultureCity sensory bags (containing noise-canceling headphones, and fidget toys), weighted lap pads (for those in need of calming), braille and large type programs (another modification made permanent in our other series as well), a hearing loop and infrared listening system (always available). No additional devices are required for those with compatible hearing aids or cochlear implants, but a free loop receiver is available if necessary. Finally, the concert included sensory-friendly, silent applause.
Our first sensory inclusive concert had an audience of about 500. The MSO spread the word about the event by means of our Family Concert list, social media posts, our website, a local autism society, a local Downs syndrome society, and local special education coordinators. Further, management sent invitations to a local corporation that has an employee assistance program that has perks for employees with special needs family members. We also found some overlap with the Milwaukee Ballet, which has performed sensory friendly Nutcracker shows for years.
One of the most important parts of doing sensory inclusive events is providing the audience with a “social story.” A social story is vital logistical information that our audience needs to know in advance of the event—the who, what, where, when, why, and how information that will help them know what to expect. You can find our social story on the web and on the KultureCity app, including photos of what everything looks like, from our hall entrances and our staff members, to ticketing and where to find restrooms, snacks, drinks, and quiet areas.
Going forward, we are planning another sensory inclusive concert in Spring 2023. It will once again have a travel theme, hosts, and potentially music from different countries. We hope that other orchestras will consider this sort of inclusion, as it serves a population that is often not comfortable attending our regular events and still wants to enjoy what we have to offer.