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Alex’s Derby Story

Derby County fan Alex Steward opens up about her disability and experiences watching the Rams as part of the club's Weeks of Action celebrations.
Derby County

As part as Derby County’s Weeks of Action, the club spoke to Rams fan and friend of Level Playing Field Alex Steward about her disability, her love for the club and the Derby County Disabled Supporter’s Club.

Firstly, can you talk to us about your disability, and how old were you when you were diagnosed?

I have a rare condition called Larsen’s Syndrome which affects the development of the body and caused my airway to collapse when I was born. I spent my first few days on a ventilator but stopped breathing at two weeks old and had a tracheostomy put in to save my life.

A tracheostomy is an incision made in the front of your neck so you can have a tube put in to breathe through. When you compare it to breathing through your mouth and nose, I have a very small airway meaning I get out of breath much faster than the average person does, therefore I use a manual wheelchair when I am out and about.

Additionally, I have to carry around a piece of medical equipment with me at all times called a suction unit. This machine helps clean my tube when I cough and prevents my tube from blocking. If my tube does get blocked, I can’t breathe and have to have an emergency tube change. This is something I can’t do alone so I have to have a carer with me at all times.

I also have double scoliosis, which is the two-way curvature of the spine. I had a six-hour long spinal fusion operation when I was about five, which fused the curved vertebrae together and held them in place with metal rods. Having this operation at such a young age prevented e from growing, combing that with with the fact short stature is common with Larsen’s Syndrome means I am four-foot-three-inches tall, although my friends are convinced I’m lying and am actually shorter!

Finally, I wear two hearing aids and although I hear pretty well with them, they can be a nuisance. Hearing aids are great when they work, but unfortunately due to how delicate they are, they can break easily and can struggle in loud environments – football stadiums being a perfect example – I can find it hard to have conversations inside a stadium because my hearing aids are so distracted by all the background noise and can’t focus on one person’s voice. Thankfully, I learnt to lip read from an early age.

Can you talk about your love of Derby County, when was your first game and are there any particular memories growing up which stick out, such as favourite players and/or managers?

My disability means I can’t go out anywhere without a carer, who is my dad. Therefore, my mum thought going to football matches would be something me and dad would both enjoy, and she was right!

Although football was often on the television when I was a child, that Match of the Day theme tune was drilled into my head by the time I was four. My dad actually very rarely went to any matches, so football came into my life when I was a teenager. At the time, I didn’t think I would get into it as I did, but after my first match we were off to Wembley to watch the 2013/14 play-off final – and then got our first season tickets for the 2014/15 season.

I loved the atmosphere at my first game at Pride Park towards the end of the match and an opposition player was time-wasting during a throw-in and hearing the Derby crowd shout about this caused the referee to give the player a yellow card. I remember finding it funny, seeing the effect the crowd had on the referee that game, seeing how involved fans get during the match. I fell in love with football that day.

My favourite Derby County players were Johnny Russell and Craig Bryson, like many Derby fans I would love to be able to watch that team play again. I loved the passion both players had for the club and that passion was shown on the pitch every match.

What do you enjoy most about matchdays at Pride Park stadium?

Honestly, the thing I most enjoy bout matchdays are the people I see. I will say hello to the same people I see at every home match. I have made some real friends from the Derby community and that is something that a disabled adult can struggle to do, it can be hard to go out and meet new people so the fact I’ve found this whole second family through Derby is a really positive thing for me.

It can be difficult to leave the house when you require a wheelchair, a piece of metal equipment and a carer with you, so having the guarantee of going to a football match at least once a week, it helps me get through a week knowing I will be going to a match at the weekend.

Finally, the football, as ridiculous as that may sound. Since my first match in 2014 I fell in love with the sport and never thought I would have that passion about something like I do football. It has been a massive part of mine and my Dad’s lives for the last eight years and has made us closer as well. We talk about Derby at least ten times a day, the family get sick of us talking about it!

When it comes to disabled access, how inclusive are Derby County? What things do the club do well and what do they need to improve?

Disabled access at Pride Park is great for home fans. One think I particularly like is the different disabled seating options we have at Pride Park. You are able to choose from pitch side or platform seating in all four stands. When I decided I wanted a season ticket I was able to walk round with the disabled liaison officer, Emma Drury, and check out the different seating and views to find the perfect spot for me.

In recent years, Derby have improved their ticketing system for disabled fans and have now made it possible for disabled fans to buy away tickets – as long as it is agreed by the other club – online. This has made buying away tickets so much easier for me and is a huge step forward in improving disabled access at football matches.

The club have also made it really easy for me to obtain my personal assistant tickets since day one, which for people like myself who can’t leave the house without a carer is a relief. It can sometimes take a while to get your personal assistant tickets for events such as concerts, having to send proof of disability and other bits, but the system Derby County have in place for season ticket holders has been really straight forward and saves a lot of hassle.

Although I no longer use it myself, there is a lot of disabled parking at Pride park which is great for those who need to park close to the stadium as possible, you are also able to hop on a ‘buggy’ and be driven directly to your turnstile if you require it. As I said, I don’t currently use the disabled parking at Pride Park simply due to where I live and finding it easier to park elsewhere, but I know if I decide to use the car park again I’d be able to get it sorted.

The DLO and ticketing team at Derby are always very friendly and happy to hep whether it’s me struggling to purchase my personal assistant ticket online or reporting an issue with the facilities, the team are always happy to help.

No stadium is ever going to have perfect disabled facilities and there is always room for improvement. In a perfect world I would say the lifts and the toilets could definitely do with an upgrade, but the fact is the facilities are there for disabled fans and make matchdays easy for me.

Let’s talk about Derby County Disabled Supporters Club. Is it nice to have that community of Derby supporters?

I got involved through Level Playing Field, a charity that work on making sports events accessible for everyone.

I have written a couple of blog’s for Level Playing Field, and the Fan’s Liaison Officer (Liam Bird) asked if I had ever spoken to Derby County Disabled Supporters Club. They introduced me to the club, with the hope that I could try and help them develop their social media platforms and appeal to younger disabled fans. Unfortunately, this isn’t the easiest of tasks – a national pandemic certainly hasn’t helped with that but I am still working with the club to try and encourage younger fans to join.

The Disabled Supporters Club is a fantastic social group for them to be a part of. It is always reassuring to be part of a group who understands what it is like to live with a disability. The group normally meet at Pride Park once a month to have tea and a cake and have a chat, sometimes with guest speakers. For some disabled fans this is the only social event they have that month, so it is vital that everyone involved with the club work hard to make sure the supporters group can continue to run to support those fans who rely on them for help or companionship.

Are there any common misconceptions which you’d like to get across when it comes to disabled supporters?

I think it’s important to remember that disabled supporters are there for the same reason as any other supporters are. We are there to cheer on our team.

It can sometimes feel like you’re a bit of an inconvenience when you’re trying to wheel through the concourse to get to your seat, especially at away matches. I find myself wheeling through crowds of drinking fans trying to find the disabled toilet or lift to our seat, and it can be a bit of a mission trying to get people to move out of your way – and I only have a small wheelchair!

We want to be with our fellow Derby County fans, I talk about this a lot on social media, but it is my pet peeve being sat nowhere near the other fans. Disabled fans want to be able to soak up the atmosphere. I pay the same price for a ticket, I want the same experience. I think some stadiums out disabled fans pitch side so we’re not in the crowd, but as long as it’s safe, I want to be in the crowd. We have that in common, our love for Derby.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to disabled facilities at any public event really, this isn’t just a problem at football, it’s just where I face it the most. Even the best and biggest stadiums, changes still need to be made. Take Wembley for example, the queue for the disabled toilets is always long and most of the queue are clearly avoiding the longer queue at the other toilets, but stewards often just shrug their shoulders or not help in any way.

Even in 2022 there is need for awareness. People might not realise how much easier it makes my trip if I can be directed straight to the disabled facilities rather than having to wheel through crowds – especially post pandemic in which I was required to shield. I feel safer not having to wheel through crowds.

I personally think the best reviews of disabled access at any place come from the people who rely on those facilities, unless you use those facilities you don’t realise what small changes could make the biggest difference.

Image: @alexstewardd on Twitter

Words: Derby County FC