Despite all the talk of equal opportunity for disabled people, I have to ask is this really the case? Are they really given opportunities in the workplace or the same possibilities to attend sporting events?
There are 11.9m disabled people in the UK, 19 per cent of the population, one in five of us. It affects people in many ways that are not always obvious. Impairments range from wheelchair use and issues with walking that can be spotted easily, or it might affect people in a way that is hardly apparent at all.
A lack of suitable facilities can make it impossible or difficult for fans to attend. Somewhat surprisingly, some Premier League clubs have still failed to upgrade facilities for disabled supporters to meet even the most basic of standards – a totally shocking state of affairs.
“It is unbelievable that in this day and age of satellite technology and being the third largest industrial nation that we have our disabled people having to campaign for basic facilities in our football grounds” believes Unite national officer for equalities, Harish Patel.
“We have Premier League clubs spending millions on players but who are failing to invest in football grounds for our disabled people,” he adds.
Older grounds can make it difficult for clubs to make the changes and adjustments necessary. Clubs lower down the English leagues simply don’t have the finances to provide the provision.
Perhaps a fund should be set up by the football association to allow disabled fans the simple pleasure of seeing their idols play in the same comfort of other fans. A comfort they well deserve.
Sadly this is not an experience always afforded to Joe Mcindoe.
An avid Southampton supporter, he attends most home games. His passion for the Saints has seen him visit most Premier League grounds in England. He is well placed to give a verdict on this issue. Joe shares with us his experiences about what it is really like to be a disabled football fan in the Premier League.
“Sometimes we are just stuck with the home fans in a general disabled area,” he says.
He explains that when disabled fans attend football matches there are far more factors that need considering before even entering the ground to ensure their comfort. These include purchasing a ticket, travel, and parking and that’s before even moving around inside the stadium.
“The experience of disabled supporters can be mixed,” said Unite’s Sean McGovern, before adding, “The football grounds I have been to are good. The stewards are helpful and in general there is plenty of space. It is true that the older grounds are more difficult and ideally, more needs to be done to make it easier for disabled fans.”
Guidelines on how football and clubs in the UK should cater for disabled spectators have been in place since 2004. The number of wheelchair spaces a stadium should provide is based on overall capacity but I simply think that some stadiums are not up to scratch, says Joe.
Joe relies on provision set aside by Southampton FC often using the club coach or opting instead for public transport. A good system in general, he still believes there is room for improvement.
Disabled supporters need additional care and provision for their experience to be an enjoyable one. The lack of information about facilities can cause difficulties to the point where Joe believes that “Sometimes it is easier to find your own way to the ground”.
One unnamed Premier League club surprisingly provides only a meagre three disabled seats. Disability charity Level Playing Field have actioned a number of complaints about the proximity of the seats to the pitch.
Is it a case for cheap seats for the disabled? That’s bad news for Joe who finds standing difficult and uses a wheelchair – has also experienced poor views at different stadia.
“Both of the main instances are at London clubs, he says. The view was so bad that sometimes I needed to stand up. When goals were scored I did not see them properly until Match of the Day that evening.
Manchester United, England’s richest club, has recently reduced its provision for disabled supporters apparently to allow for structural changes at their Old Trafford ground. This denies fans the chance to experience the iconic venue. Because of their disability, those fans cannot sit anywhere else in the ground safely and so sadly, they cannot attend.
As England’s most decorated and historic clubs they should be leading the way, promoting better access for disabled supporters.
Harish Patel agrees. “It is time for clubs to stop looking for excuses and ensure that they provide equal access and opportunity for disabled people to enjoy the game just as much as abled people.
“This is a moral responsibility and not a luxury to be driven by financial excuses,” he adds.
New stadia are an opportunity for clubs to make extra provision. At grounds such as the Emirates Stadium extra space allows clubs to not only make seats physically more accessible but to increase the number of disabled fans able to safely attend and enjoy matches.
Joe welcomes the changes. “While new stadia can look bland and lack atmosphere they are far easier to attend games consistently and to navigate around,” says Joe.
With West Ham United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur either moved in or planning to move into a new stadium this is perhaps an opportunity to enhance the experience of disabled supporters when they visit venues such as the London Stadium.
Let’s hope change continues to happen so that disabled fans can get equal access to the game they so love.