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Joyce Cook blogs for Sport & Recreation Alliance on access and inclusion for disabled sports fans

Joyce Cook OBE, Chair of Level Playing Field, writes for the Sport and Recreation Alliance blog about access and inclusion – the progress that has been made and the challenges that lie ahead in improving access for disabled sports fans.


 In this blog Joyce Cook OBE, Chair of Level Playing Field, explains how sport can do more to be inclusive for disabled people, both as players and spectators.


Watching live sports can be life changing for many disabled people. I speak with some experience as it happened to me. I became disabled just before hitting the big 4-0 and didn’t find it easy to adapt. My life turned upside down and everything changed. Life instantly seemed so much harder in a wheelchair. The world treated me very differently and my partner and I quickly learnt that we could no longer take access for granted. Those clique questions you read about – ‘does she take sugar’ – happened to us and it felt as if I became invisible. If you know me, you’ll know that the last thing I like to be is invisible and I hated feeling that way. So I decided that if the world didn’t want to include me, I’d exclude it right back. I didn’t leave the house for 2 years excepting hospital appointments. Thankfully my love of live football saved me – I couldn’t resist and it gave me my life back. My sense of well-being and self esteem gradually returned and I subsequently found a very good reason to get out of bed every single day. I found a cause close to my heart – Level Playing Field – and its been making sure I get out of bed each and every day ever since.

My story is not unusual – sport helps many disabled people rehabilitate and build their self esteem through participation and spectating too (although the later if too often overlooked). Yet more than 50% of disabled people have never even attended a public event (such as a sporting event) – how can that be possible in 2015? Because of poor access and a lack of information even when good access is provided.

At Level Playing Field, we take a positive and proactive user-led approach in the work we do by supporting sports governing bodies and their clubs towards equal access for all fans. Alongside, we continue to campaign on behalf of our members to ensure that our topic is high on the change makers’ agendas. As such, we have welcomed the high level interest shown by parliamentarians and the media in recent years. It’s been a long and often bumpy road but it’s been worth every single step.

We’ve certainly come a long way and I’ve seen progress since taking the helm at LPF back in 2007 but while some sports venues have adopted an inclusive and accessible approach, sadly improvements on this front have been woefully slow in most cases with some of our richest sports and their clubs having failed disabled people.

82% of British football fans agree that being around other fans in the atmosphere of the grounds is as important as watching the game itself. 85% of British football fans associate football with friendship and camaraderie. (Football Passions Report 2008.) Disabled fans should not be deprived of this experience and the sense of belonging.

With this in mind, we welcomed the recent government study undertaken jointly by DCMS and DWP and the robust support offered by successive Ministers. This report underpins the many challenges still faced by disabled sports fans in the UK and highlights the significant work we still have ahead if we are to build on the successes of London 2012. We must learn from the standards set by the 2012 Games, they showed us just what is possible when access and inclusion is placed – where it should be – at the very heart of sport. It really isn’t that difficult and the benefits of inclusive access for many disabled people can be huge.

But more than that, this is about equality, humanity and simply doing what is right. The disabled community is the largest minority group and businesses are at last waking up to this commercial advantage.

Let’s be clear, when a disabled person is denied access or provided with a lesser service – it hurts – it is discrimination and exclusion at its ugliest. It tells us that we are some how less important, less valued, less worthy. Is that what we really mean? Is that the reputation we wish for our sports, our clubs, each other? Or do we seek true inclusion. If so, then it is time to step up.

So, it was with real pleasure and a little pride that we welcomed the Premier League’s recent pledge, which will see each of its clubs compliant with minimum standards (Accessible Stadia) by August 2017. This was quickly followed by a commitment to improve accessibility by Premiership Rugby with Rugby League having made a similar statement in 2014.

These are big promises with a great deal at stake and we certainly cannot be complacent. Actions have to now follow these words but we should at least take a brief pause to enjoy this moment and to thank all those who have helped us to reach this point. Then we have to roll up our sleeves together and make very sure that we finally get this job done. There can no doubt that disabled sports fans have waited long enough – it is now quite simply time!

From: Sport & Recreation Alliance