As part of the Level Playing Field (LPF) Weeks of Action campaign we sat down with Amy Wilson of Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFÉ), to discuss her experiences of going to football matches as a wheelchair user. Here Amy discusses where she feels clubs are doing well and where she thinks they can improve to be a real ‘Game Changer’ for wheelchair users.
Amy is a passionate Everton fan who has been following the Toffees since 1993 and as well as being a season ticket holder at Goodison Park, she travels to away matches including European games. These experiences ensure Amy brings expert knowledge and experience of access issues to sports stadia to her work.
Q) What were your early experiences of attending live football games?
A) As a wheelchair user going to my first games I was quite nervous, there were so many more people in a small area than I was used to. Access routes were generally poor which made navigating my way through the crowd a bit of a panicky experience at first but it was something I got used to quite quickly.
Looking back, when I began going to games facilities for all disabled fans were limited at best. We were seen as an afterthought – there was a scarcity of spaces for wheelchair users and the spaces that were there had appalling views of the pitch. There was also a big lack of information available particularly when purchasing tickets – I remember having to phone up random club numbers in the hope someone could help me!
Q) What barriers to access and inclusion have you come across in your time watching live sport?
A) My biggest complaint is as an away supporter having to sit in with the home supporters – it can be really intimidating and uncomfortable, particularly at big games. It also means you miss out on the unique feeling of belonging that being in with your own supporters provides – it’s a vital part of the experience of going to the game. Sitting with the opposition fans can often make you consider not going at all.
Sightlines also need more thought too, there has been an effort to improve this aspect at many clubs but it’s not always as well thought through as you’d expect and do not always take account of what occurs on a matchday. Stewarding and staffing can still be hit and miss, and there can be a tendency to patronise disabled fans. I don’t want to be patronised, I want to enjoy the game the same as everyone else!
Q) Do you think there has been improvement in club’s understanding and provisions for wheelchair users?
A) Yes there has generally been an improvement across the board since I began going to games but that progress has in many cases been slow and there is still a long way to go. It is noticeable that at some clubs there is a real will to get things right from top to bottom and this has transformed the experience for disabled fans.
A club such as Swansea City has shown how a club that commits to getting things right can provide a fully accessible experience for wheelchair users. The sightlines are excellent, the stewards are well trained and the concourse areas are spacious and well thought out. The low level serving counters mean I can also buy myself a drink rather than sending my brother! When things are done well like this, I become part of the matchday just like everyone else, and that’s all disabled supporters really ask for.
Q) What can clubs and venues do to make sports stadia fully accessible and inclusive for wheelchair users?
A) The first thing clubs should do is consult with their own disabled fans, as well as experts like LPF and CAFE. Club’s must listen to the access requirements of their fans, for they need to have a say in how things are done, and with the expertise of organisations such as LPF & CAFE it is possible to make stadia fully accessible and inclusive.
The whole matchday experience – from buying tickets, sightlines, accessible toilet facilties to exiting the stadium – must be taken into account, and club staff who are knowledgeable on disability can be a real ‘Game Changer’ for disabled fans. At bigger clubs, a full time Disability Access Officer in post can really help support clubs in getting things right.
Q) If you could give any advice to a wheelchair user who hasn’t yet attended a live football game and is cautious of doing so what would you say?
A) My first piece of advice is to just do it, and the problems you may encounter do get easier – there is nothing quite like the highs and lows that football brings and it has to be experienced. Disabled people have every right to enjoy going to the football just like everyone else. I’d advise you to plan ahead, to research the stadium you plan to go to and speak to the club as well as use the LPF club information pages to get as much info as you need so you know what to expect come matchday.
Despite the issues that wheelchair users – and all disabled people – still sometimes face when going to football matches, simply going to the game can have a life changing effect and everyone deserves to have that feeling. Go the game and make sure you have your say as a disabled fan!
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