The Forgotten Fans

By Paul Kitchin Ulster University

On the 16th of January the Culture, Media and Sports Committee published their 5th report in this sitting on the Accessibility of Sport Stadia.  In this post this report is briefly summarised and the implications for football discussed.

Disabled fans’ experience

The most popular spectator sport amongst the fans who responded to the Inclusive and Accessible Stadia survey was football, but rugby, cricket, tennis, athletics and swimming were also mentioned often.  Despite their popularity Level Playing Field, the national advocacy group for disabled fans in England stated that they received 400 complaints every year, however as discussed in my last post the onus rests on the individual.  As such the reality is one of the club’s fans has to take them to court for discrimination.  Not a palatable prospect for any fan.

The report also found that the diversity of disability was inadequately catered for by the sporting authorities. This reflects wider concerns about the limited understanding of disability outside of sport, an assumption that the wheelchair for instance is synonymous with disability

Accessibility is more than step-free access

Accessible spectator sport isn’t just about the right seats and their sight-lines.  As identified by Paramio-Salcines et al. (2011), the Holistic Journey Sequence for disabled fans begins when they decide to attend and then search for tickets.  A lack of clarity and consistency in the design of website makes it difficult to book tickets and find match-day related information.  These issues are exacerbated if you are an away supporter.

Accessibility must also consider ‘getting there’ the journey involves transport, parking, access from stations and parks into the ground.  Some clubs assist with transport from public transport hubs to the ground but this again is inconsistent.

Building regulations in England require, where reasonable (this is a key term I’ll address later) venues with a capacity of between 600 and 10,000 should have about 1% of this capacity dedicated to accessible seating.

The seats that are available are often found to be inadequate.  Certain fans require additional support and while a carer can attend there is little provision for a group of family members to accompany a disabled fan.  Where this is present however it as Manchester United where a campaign by Martin Emery on this issue bought about a change in the clubs’ practices.  Fans that require hearing (induction) loops and/or audio descriptive commentary are again at the mercy of inconsistent

Rugby and cricket also provide inadequate facilities for disabled fans, the report focuses on the lack of seating options, and the quality of those present at Twickenham while few first-class cricket counties met the recommended guidelines.  Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, the Disability Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission did comment however that the attitudes of these organizations appeared more positive and open to change.  Time will tell.

Responses from stakeholders

While these findings paint a bleak picture, many staff within clubs are doing what they can to provide greater accessibility and customer service.  Current research indicates that increase accessibility, and the expanded notion of accessibility aligned to the Holistic Journey Sequence is at the top of the agenda for staff with responsibilities in this area.  The issues are complex and while it opens the possibility for legal challenge there are some clubs who are addressing additional accessibility issues even if their seating allocations are inadequate.

The report’s conclusions and recommendations are presented in table 1 and can be found in context via the following site.

Table 1: Report Conclusions and Recommendations
1.It is very clear that sports clubs, notably many of those with very considerable income and resources, have not given priority to sports fans with disabilities in recent years, despite the increase in income many of those clubs have received. (Paragraph 8)
The experiences of those with disabilities
2.Disabled spectators are not asking for a large number of expensive changes. They love their sports and wish only for their needs to be taken into account in the way sports stadia are designed and operated. As we go on to describe, a number of clubs are already providing disabled supporters with a good experience when they attend matches, and more could do so. It is high time that sports clubs, particularly those with available finance such as those in football’s Premier League, changed their mindset. It is more a question of will than resources. (Paragraph 22)
The response to date
3.Consideration should be given to devising a confidential reporting regime to enable complaints to be made without adverse consequences for those who complain. (Paragraph 23)
4.We expect the needs of disabled fans to receive priority over the desire to charge a premium for extra hospitality accommodation. (Paragraph 29)
5.There is plenty of guidance available as to what adjustments might be considered reasonable for sports grounds (listed, for example, in Annex A of the Inclusive and Accessible Stadia Report) and many of the obvious ways to ameliorate the problems described above do not require considerable capital or disruption to the stadia and those visiting. Disability awareness training, professional access audits and design appraisals are not expensive and are available from a number of organisations. The start-up cost of a full Audio Descriptive Commentary Service is only £4,000 per club. While the provision of extra wheelchair spaces, adequate lifts and more disabled toilets may require substantial building work, many clubs have made, are making or are planning major building works in which these might be included. (Paragraph 35)
6.We strongly applaud the work done by a number of football clubs in meeting both the letter and the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act. We accept that other sports have made less progress to date, but we note Level Playing Field’s belief that rugby league, rugby union and county cricket clubs are taking the issue seriously. We encourage these sports to persist. However, we consider it completely unacceptable that a number of Premier League clubs—some of the richest sporting organisations in the UK—have failed to carry out even basic adaptations in over 20 years. Given the huge public investment in converting the Olympic Stadium into a Premier League football ground, we would expect all the partners involved to ensure that West Ham, at the very least, becomes an exemplar regarding disabled access. (Paragraph 40)
7.We concur with Ministers that it is in the sports’ own interests to pay more attention to the—often very moderate—needs of such a large proportion of the UK population. Most clubs do not sell all the tickets for games, and a reputation for being well adapted and welcoming to disabled supporters should enhance their reputations generally. Conversely, it could be considered a reputational risk—and one which sponsors would have to take seriously—if clubs continued to fail to engage with reasonable adjustments and thereby be in breach of the law. (Paragraph 41)
8.The Premier League told us that it would consider imposing sanctions on clubs that fail to provide sufficient accessibility. However, it is not clear whether this relates only to the physical modifications that should be made to stadia, rather than the broader view of the quality of the overall experience for supporters with disabilities. Given 20 years of comparative inactivity by the football leagues, we are not convinced that the Premier League would impose suitable penalties on clubs, even for failing to meet building regulations. (Paragraph 42)

Point 9 is arguably the most interesting.  Emerging from today’s publication is that the evidence that the EHRC may begin “legal proceedings against clubs that continue to flout the law” and the Select Committee adding their weight behind this with “We support them in this action”.

Is change on the way?

Maybe legal action will not be necessary.  If you can accept the idea that one committed staff member/manager can change an organisation (even an institution) then there is hope yet.  UEFA have made appointing a Disability Access Officer as a minimum requirement to achieve licensed club status.  This DAO and Disability Liaison Officers could be the key individuals needed to raise the awareness of disability within the club and hopefully allow an inclusive culture to evolve and address the lack of awareness that was found across staff at all levels of football.  It’s a big if.

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