"Art is for everybody": PAC SLO gets certified as sensory inclusive venue
The Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo is the first theater in the region to be certified as a sensory inclusive venue.
Also called PAC SLO, the theater is located on the Cal Poly campus and serves the whole region with live performances of local symphony, opera and ballet companies, as well as visiting artists.
Director of guest and volunteer services Milly Barizo wants to make the theater experience as accessible and welcoming as she possibly can. To accomplish this, she led the effort to become certified for sensory inclusion. The certification is earned through a non-profit organization called KultureCity.
“They provide tools and education for venues of all kinds to become more accessible to folks with invisible illnesses like autism or dementia or PTSD. There may be people who are experiencing overload with very loud sounds or very bright lights,” she said.
According to KultureCity, one-in-six people in the US have a sensory need or an invisible disability, and many people withdraw from the community because they’re worried about being accepted.
“We think of human beings as having five senses: see, smell, hear, taste and feel, but there’s actually eight total. There’s the sense of balance which is your vestibular system, there’s the sense of what’s going on in your body, and then there’s the sense of your surroundings as well,” Barizo said.
The staff at PAC SLO is now trained to ensure that those surroundings feel more welcoming to all visitors. Anyone who requests help will learn that the theater has a small quiet space where individuals can get away from the crowd. They have weighted lap pads as well as backpacks of specialized items available for check-out in the lobby.
“There are noise canceling headphones that come in their own little pouch, there is a KultureCity VIP lanyard, so this is a visual cue for staff and volunteers. Guests certainly aren't required to wear this; they can wear it if they're comfortable. We have a feelings card to help guests communicate if they are non-verbal or unable to speak at that moment,” Barizo said.
The bags also include silent fidget toys.
“You can have something to do with your hands while still being a part of the show, and your companion can also still be a part of the show,” she said.
Another useful tool is the free KultureCity app. It’s a way to find and preview a sensory inclusive venue by looking at pictures and learning about the lay-out. When people prepare to attend, they can be more likely to enjoy the show.
Andrea Castillo said the app is helpful for children coming to PAC SLO for the first time. Castillo is the program services coordinator, she brings students in from all over the Central Coast for matinee performances.
“We serve about 10,000 students annually and for a given performance, we’re welcoming about 900 students at a time. As you can imagine, it’s a very exciting day, very busy but it can also be a little overwhelming,” she said.
Castillo said the different options for sensory tools and the staff training have already proved useful during student matinees.
“We’ve already had responses from teachers, from parents, who have just said that our ushers are so kind. I think that’s a really big part of it, too. Now that we’ve been through the training, we can communicate better with our patrons, with our students and give them the best experience possible,” she said.
Guest Services director, Milly Barizo, encourages other local venues to become sensory inclusive.
“I'm somebody that really wants to highlight that art is for everybody – music, dance, theater is for everybody,” she said.
She’s hoping PAC SLO will start a trend on the Central Coast.
The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation, San Luis Obispo County.