Wellness Wednesday: Jason Isbell on the importance of sensory inclusivity


Black and white image of Jason Isbell with guitar at microphone.
Jason Isbell performs at The Current in 2018. (Nate Ryan/MPR)
Jason Isbell on the importance of sensory inclusivity
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Today's topic is sensory inclusivity. If you're wondering, "What does that mean?", you're going to find out during today's segment. To speak more about this topic, and an organization that he's passionate about: singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: Jason, you're on the board of an organization called KultureCity. What is KultureCity, and how did you get involved with this?

Jason Isbell: KultureCity is an organization that works to include people who have invisible disabilities: so, different sensory needs. Sometimes it's autism, sometimes it's something brought on from ADHD...you know, there's a wide range of invisible disabilities that we try to accommodate. One thing is we will try to open up rooms at sports venues for people to take their family — like if they have a child who is overwhelmed by the lights and the sounds, if it's a sports venue, you know, they'll have a room there where you can take the child and the child can can relax in a room that is designed and decorated in a way that makes it comfortable.

Then at my shows — and on some other tours now, I think Lauren Daigle started doing this also — we provide bags at the merch table where families can go by and pick up and get headphones and sensory toys for the kids to play with. Just things to make the show more enjoyable for people who might otherwise be overwhelmed by it. And then another aspect of what KultureCity does is: we work with law enforcement, we have a training program that we send out to participating law enforcement branches, and it helps them in dealing with calls when the people on the other end of the call might have an invisible disability. So so we're trying to spread that around the country, and help law enforcement and first responders get trained.

The police training side of that is just so important in the era that we're living in now.

I think so, too. It's not something that a lot of first responders have training with, unless they've gone through a program like this one. They show up and they want to turn the flashlights on and yell, just like they do when they're arresting somebody who doesn't have sensory issues. They want to get your attention and get you to focus and sort of discombobulate you for a minute. If you do that with somebody who is autistic or somebody who has an invisible disability like that, it can make the situation much, much worse. Sometimes they're not able to verbally communicate that they're having a problem at that point in time. A lot of people's lives have been lost because of that, and hopefully this will make an impact nationwide.

A term like "invisible disability" is new to a lot of people, but I was reading that one in six individuals have a sensory need or invisible disability. One in six...I mean, that's a lot of people. When did you become aware that it was something that you should pay attention to? Was it a conversation you had? Was it somebody that you knew?

You know, I've had a lot of friends over the years who have dealt with invisible disabilities. I didn't know exactly what to call it when I was younger, but now as an adult, I have a lot of friends who have autistic children. That requires a lot of patience on everybody's part. The thing that kind of broke my heart the most was the fact that they didn't feel comfortable taking their children to concerts. We have always sort of tried to become friendly with those families and help them get the most out of the experience.

The KultureCity thing really made that a lot easier for us to do because we had some resources. I was brought into the organization originally by Dominique Wilkins — you know, the Human Highlight Reel. Played basketball for the Atlanta Hawks, and was the great dunker of my childhood. Dominique was unable to bring his family to a game in Atlanta, and there's a statue of Dominique in front of the arena. There was nowhere for his children to go. You know, he has a child with with invisible disability, there was nowhere for her to go and gather herself and enjoy the experience. That that was pretty moving for me to think about this man who has a statue of himself in front of the basketball arena not being able to take his family to a game. We called for the city to put a room in there, thanks to Dominique's involvement. Then it was possible for him to [bring his family to a game].

What can people do to help? I mean, what can people do in their day to day lives?

Well, you know, obviously, you could donate time or money, but I think a big thing that almost everybody can do is just try to be aware, you know, and try to think before you lose your patience with somebody or before you judge somebody in a public situation. Ask yourself the question, you know, could this person be dealing with a disability that I can't see? Or could they have different needs, not necessarily even a disability? Do they have different needs than I have, and are my needs more adequately being met in this circumstance than theirs are? I think that's really kind of at the root of it. It's just trying to empathize a little bit with people, and use your patience. Then, the whole experience could be better for everybody.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Unarmed Civilian (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.

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