Philippa Willitts looks at what some major sports venues are doing to welcome disabled spectators – and at how others can be persuaded to do the same…
As a nation, Britain attends more games and sporting events than anywhere else in the world. In 2012 alone, some 64 million people attended sporting events in the UK – and that’s not including the 11 million seats sold at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The 2012 Games have been credited with reigniting the country’s interest in sport, and the Olympic venues were widely praised for their efforts at being fully accessible to disabled people – but how well are other stadia and clubs across the country performing?
From having to turn up several hours early to secure a coveted ‘wheelchair space’, to being unable to get inside a stadium altogether, disabled sports fans have had a rough ride for many years. Often unable to sit with their friends and family at a match, or placed in an unsuitable location with a limited view, sports stadia and arenas have been dismal places for disabled people at times. According to the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers, 20% of its members have previously been prevented from attending a sporting event due to access difficulties.
No longer willing to sit on the awkwardly positioned sidelines, some people have taken matters into their own hands. Keen to support their local teams and to experience the camaraderie that comes with attending live games, they have met with other disabled fans and organised efforts to bring about the changes necessary for the sport they love to be truly accessible.
When Warner Duff, a lifelong Ipswich Town Football Club (ITFC) fan, became the club’s Disability Liaison Officer in 2000, it gave him the opportunity to make things better for other disabled Ipswich supporters. One of the first changes he oversaw was to allow free entry to carers attending matches with disabled fans, and the improvements have built up from there.
Duff is proud of what the club has achieved. “I think we can hold our heads up high,” he says. “We do endeavour to make things as easy and as accessible for all disabled people, whatever their disability, and we do our best to make sure they enjoy the match.”
ITFC’s accessibility provision for disabled supporters includes 103 spaces for wheelchair-using home fans, seating for people with walking difficulties, dedicated areas for people with assistance dogs, hearing aid loop systems, an audio commentary facility, accessible toilets and accessible corporate lounges.
Duff praises the club’s proactive approach to disability inclusion, explaining that, “From the beginning, they have always looked to try and meet the needs of disabled people, and it’s not just because of legislation change. Even before then, they did strive to make it a smooth operation”.
Making a difference
Duff extends his work beyond the minimum regulations set out by the Football Association by, for instance, implementing refresher training for existing staff when the club is only obligated to provide disability awareness training for new staff. He also spends much of his time taking bookings from disabled fans, liaising with club staff and management, making sure that disabled fans know about the accessibility options available and arranging access audits, in order to formalise any further improvements that need to be made. And it’s making a difference.
“Season upon season we have increased the number of disabled people that come along to Portman Road,” Duff says. “Year on year it’s increasing.”
Phil Downs, Disability Liaison Officer at Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association (MUDSA) shares Duff’s commitment to exceeding the legal minimum when it comes to accessibility standards at football matches. As Old Trafford was redeveloped over time, Downs oversaw the incorporation of accessible features with each new improvement. In Downs’ view, he was able to achieve more positive results than he might have otherwise through approaching it as an evolutionary process.
“Improving things often means doing it in bite-size chunks,” he explains. “We weren’t going in and thumping on the door or banging on the desk. We wanted to be seen as supporters of the club, so we worked with them rather than against them.”
There are numerous challenges that can get in the way of making older stadiums fully accessible, but newer venues – such as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, for example – tend to be built with ease of use and accessibility in mind from the start. It is certainly easier to envision and implement access facilities when they are incorporated within the initial designs, but Downs has managed targets within each project of redeveloping Old Trafford.
It’s a far cry from MUDSA’s informal start in the late 80s, when a small group of disabled fans got together socially. With encouragement from Lyn Laffin, Sir Alex Ferguson’s PA, they got organised and began the process of working more closely with the club, which was happy to tap into their expertise and start making improvements.
One of MUDSA’s biggest successes is the Ability Suite, a dedicated match-day lounge for disabled supporters that was built when Old Trafford’s ticket office was moved. The Ability Suite took its place and now serves as social space in which disabled fans can interact and chat. Even supporters of opposing teams have contacted MUDSA after attending away matches to praise the facilities.
Football may attract more spectators than any other professional sport in the UK, but it is not the only area in which efforts are being made to improve access for disabled fans.
For cricket fans, one way in which Lord’s Cricket Ground has made itself more welcoming is by offering live audio match commentary for visually impaired spectators. The ground’s ‘Ball by Ball Commentary’ service is provided by Marylebone Cricket Club in association with the RNIB, and sees combination of BBC and volunteer commentators to, as the Lord’s website puts it, “Provide coverage both to spectators in the Ground and to the wider world through live streaming.”
Blind and partially sighted spectators on the day receive a radio headset on which they can listen to an audio description of the action taking place on the pitch, side by side with their fellow fans.
Spreading the word
Disabled sport fans keen to encourage better accessibility in their own clubs can obtain help and advice from a number of sources. The ‘Access to All’ guide produced by UEFA and the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE) is a good practice guide full of recommendations that venues can implement, from small steps to huge alterations. The organisation Level Playing Field, whose remit is to promote ‘Good access for all fans’, has an informative website with practical advice and details of the various laws that govern access provision in the UK.
Disability Rights UK also offers advice on minor changes that sports fans can encourage their clubs to take, including the following:
– Announcing key incidents, such as goals or substitutions, over the PA and on screens
– Creating a booklet or leaflet, plus a page on their website, that details what accessible facilities the club or venue has
– Hiring voiceover professionals or fans to read and record the match programme and make it available as an MP3
– Requesting flexibility with regards to where people can sit
– Liaising with other stadia to find out about the accessibility provision available elsewhere
Many of these are steps that don’t just help disabled attendees – clearer presentation of match information can benefit everybody else in attendance, and improving physical access to the ground will be appreciated by both disabled and older fans alike.
Warner Downs and Phil Duff both concede that there is still work to be done. Duff is keen to introduce improvements at Portman Road for wheelchair-using away fans, while Downs is constantly on the lookout for further ways in which MUDSA can offer what he describes as, “A holistic match-day experience – something that meets the needs of any disabled person, from beginning to end.”
The progress made so far at Lord’s, Manchester United, Ipswich Town and many other sporting venues has made a real difference to their disabled fans. But a more proactive stance from sports governing bodies – such as imposing stronger guidelines on those clubs less open to voluntary change – could have a greater impact still on the experiences of fans nationwide.
The information provided by organisations such as Level Playing Field, Disability Rights UK and CAFE could potentially equip those who love the buzz of the crowd during a live match to insist on, and ultimately bring about, positive changes that improve the experiences for sporting crowds as a whole.
Ipswich Town Football Club
01473 400 500 (switchboard)
The club’s accessibility information can be found at tinyurl.com/ITFC-access
Lord’s Cricket Ground
020 7616 8500 (switchboard)
Further details about the Ball by Ball Commentary service can be found at tinyurl.com/lords-ball-by-ball
Level Playing Field
01244 893 584
01244 893 586
Disability Rights UK
020 7250 3222 (main office)