The key aim of this report was to recognise and highlight the access requirements of neurodiverse sports fans and how these related to questions about maintaining a safe environment within stadia and grounds.
Chief executive of the SGSA Martyn Henderson said: “Being a leader in safety, our main goal is to continuously improve sports grounds for all spectators. This research is a vital first step towards addressing the lack of evidence around the access needs of neurodiverse fans.”
The research explores the experiences of neurodiverse fans before and after sports events, including buying tickets, planning trips, as well as experiences of travel to venues, entry and exit.
According to NatCen’s findings, although participants reported positive experiences attending live events, there were many areas where experiences could be improved, and there is scope for further support.
Suggestions for improvements were made across the whole of the spectator journey: from those related to ticketing and information provision before the match to the day itself. More generally suggestions were also made about how clubs could engage with neurodiverse fans.
The research included interviews and focus groups with 24 neurodiverse sports fans (including companions/carers/guardians) to explore issues from participants’ points of view. Experiences at a range of different types of sports were included in the research, but attendance was more frequent at football.
The types of neurodiversity that were represented across the study were: autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); dyslexia; dyspraxia; and Tourette’s syndrome. Due to the diversity of conditions, people had different characteristics and requirements.
Feedback from participants revealed the following areas needed improving:
- Booking tickets. Participants wanted an easier process of booking, with a single accessibility scheme that recognised individual requirements operating across sports. This would reduce the need to repeatedly explain or justify their access requirements.
- Information provision ahead of the day. Being able to plan improved confidence. Participants wanted more information available in advance of events, covering: what to expect in terms of arrival and transport; security checks and what could be brought into the venue; seating layout; and who they could speak to for help.
- Venue Arrival. Being physically close to other people can be overstimulating and lead to a rise in anxiety. Participants wanted greater availability of accessible parking or more drop off locations nearer the venues. They also felt there should be more accessible entrances with consistent staffing who understand neurodiverse spectators.
- Staffing. Negative encounters were reported arising from a lack of understanding from staff. They felt staff, particularly stewards, should receive training to be more aware of, better understand and support neurodiverse fans. Where participants received support from disability access or liaison officers, this was generally a positive experience. “Knowledge is key, the training of stewards is the way forward as they are on the grounds with the fans” (said carer of child with ADHD and Tourette’s, who attends football and ice hockey).
- Venue design. Negative experiences where venues had narrow concourses and gangways or closely packed seating were reported. Being able to pick appropriate seating improved this. Fans often relied on support from other people to find their way around venues but suggested new stadia should be built with wider, more spacious concourses, gangways, and seating. Signage could also be improved using pictures, colours, and larger text.
- Facilities. Participants were supportive of the provision of sensory rooms for neurodiverse children and for those with more complex needs but noted that there were various limitations to these. They advocated having more quiet spaces closer to seating areas that could be accessed without prior booking and be used as a space to moderate anxiety or stress.
- Safety. Many of the factors that improved participants’ overall experience also made them feel safer while attending live events. These included accessible/open seating and accessible venue design, support from family or friends, and a strong presence of trustworthy staff who understood the requirements of the range of fans.
- Engagement from clubs/venues. Finally, participants wanted greater engagement from clubs and venues with their neurodiverse fans, through a ‘neurodiversity champion’ to understand the requirements among the supporter base. Participants also felt that clubs/venues could do more to raise awareness with other spectators.
The study aimed to better understand the accessibility requirements of neurodiverse fans and establish what can be done to make reasonable adjustments and improve their experiences. Participants were happy that this research was being conducted by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and Level Playing Field as they saw this as a step towards developing such standards.
There is clearly a growing interest in this subject, and many venues are already making steps to adapt and improve their provisions. Level Playing Field will be integrating the key findings from the study into their new Accessible Stadia Guide, which will be published towards the end of 2022.
Chair of Level Playing Field, Tony Taylor, said: “We are delighted to have a research project such as this take place. The matchday experience for Neurodiverse fans is often an unknown quantity and can present barriers for fans attending or having a lesser experience when they do so.
The findings of this research project will allow progress to be made in enhancing access and inclusion for neurodiverse fans. We are fully aware that more still needs to be done, but hope that this research will lead to a large scale research project in the future and, of course, greater access and inclusion at sports stadia.
“We are grateful to the SGSA for commissioning and supporting this important project, and to NatCen for delivering it.”
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