Damar Services Inc. is launching an innovative program to make outings to public attractions more enjoyable for people with autism and other behavioral or developmental disabilities, and several local sports organizations are taking the lead in implementing it.
The Indianapolis-based not-for-profit recently launched Damar DNA, a training program that helps businesses and organizations better accommodate people with such disabilities.
The Indianapolis Colts, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis Indians, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park and Denny’s restaurants have participated in the program, and other organizations have signed up, Damar officials said.
“We started with sports, because those were obvious choices where the families desired to be,” said Damar CEO Jim Dalton. “They’ve really been receptive and taken a leadership role with this program.”
Participating organizations have already made several “dramatic” changes due to the program’s training, Dalton said. For instance, Lucas Oil Stadium has begun offering picture menus to help people with disabilities order food for themselves, and Conner Prairie established special visiting times and Quiet Spots for kids who need a break from sensory stimulation.
Venues like Lucas Oil Stadium and Victory Field now offer sound-dampening headphones to help people who are over-stimulated by loud noises, as well as weighted blankets, which can be comforting to people with autism.
“We serve 1,500 people with developmental disabilities or autism every day, and what we found is that many organizations and attractions in the community were not prepared to accommodate them,” Dalton said. “That limited our outcomes. Our folks were not able to readily be in the community. We decided to take another step and reach out to the community.”
In many cases, Dalton explained, it wasn’t an unwillingness to accommodate people with such needs, but a lack of training in doing so.
Damar DNA has been in the works for 3-1/2 years, Dalton said, and implementation began 18 months ago. The initiative has been kicked into high gear this year.
“We started with folks we had relationships with,” Dalton said. “For a lot of them, it was a pretty easy sell. Autism is on the rise these days.”
Damar DNA is not merely a public service. It’s also good business, according to Damar officials.
“There is a lot of money to be spent by these families that is not being spent because they’re having negative experiences,” Dalton said. “It became a cycle where those families couldn’t enjoy some of the things in this community.”
The Colts, which have been a Damar supporter for years, were one of the first organizations to get involved in Damar DNA.
"Some of our most avid fans have disabilities, so naturally we want our games to be accessible," said Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward. "In this day and age, there should be no obstacle for anyone to attend a Colts game or any event. We feel it's critical for us to be easily accessible to all people no matter what their disability."
Among NFL teams, the Colts are on the leading edge with Damar DNA.
"We think we may be one of the first if not the first team in the NFL to have things like noise-cancelling head phones and weighted blankets," said Larry Hall, Colts vice president of ticket operations and guest services. "We take great pride in our game-day experience and providing accommodations to all of our fans is a big part of that.
Stadium Journey, a publication dedicated to reviewing and rating U.S. sports venues, recently wrote an article about the implementation of Damar DNA at Colts games, noting the uniqueness of the program.
Getting involved in Damar DNA was not a difficult decision for Indians officials.
"Going through the Damar training was really eye opening," said Matt Guay, Indians director of tickets and operations. "The program helped us realize that limitations people may have are not always immediately visible. And that not all people with autism will react the same way to the same things. The program helped us look for signs, listen better and be ready with resources fans need."
Dalton is hopeful more companies will follow the lead of local sports businesses.
“Going to a Colts game is great,” Dalton said, “but we also have to remember that these folks have to go to grocery stores, banks and drug stores, and those experiences have been difficult for them. We want to use this program to increase sensitivity and awareness in all public places.”