English football clubs could learn from Scots teams on how to improve disability access at matches
Scottish disability campaigner Euan MacDonald issues his top tips as pressure on English clubs to improve their facilities heats up
A prominent Scottish disability campaigner has welcomed the pressure put on football teams to improve facilities at their stadiums for fans with a disability.
Euan MacDonald, founder of disability access review website Euan’s Guide, said although improvements have been made at sports stadiums in recent years there is still a lot that can be done.
MacDonald, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2003 and uses a powered chair, spoke out after a report by the culture, media and sport select committee criticised over a quarter of the football clubs in the English Premier League, saying at least four are likely to miss an August deadline handed to them by league bosses to reach a minimum standard.
Scottish clubs are governed separately and not affected by the deadline but MacDonald, a Hibs fan (he is pictured below with the Scottish Cup) who regularly attends matches, said it was good the situation has been given a higher profile.
“Recent pressure on football clubs across the UK has been welcome,” MacDonald told TFN.
“There has been a recognition that wheelchair spaces should be covered from the elements and elevated to provide an adequate view of the game. This is a definite improvement from the previous situation where people were placed ahead of the front row of the stand.
“There has also been a recognition that it's not enough to just provide for wheelchairs.
“However, a more comprehensive approach is needed to cater for every supporter, regardless of need or impairment.
“It’s important to consider the different elements that make up a stadium, including the staff and stewards, eating and drinking areas, accessible toilets, parking and walking distances.”
MacDonald says clubs down south could learn a thing or two from Scottish teams.
He points to Scottish Championship side Dunfermline Athletic as a prime example.
Not an affluent club, it can only afford to make limited renovations to its East End Park stadium so has implemented a "match buddy" system as an effective measure.
The system sees volunteers in hi-vis vests available to assist fans on game day by collecting tickets, food and merchandise for them and collecting and returning audio commentary headsets for visually impaired fans too. They even provide fleeces and chill-cheater blankets on a cold day.
John Simpson, secretary of Dunfermline Athletic Disabled Supporters' Club, welcomed MacDonald’s praise and told TFN his club is ambitious to do more and he hopes that other clubs will do the same.
He suggests clubs should first find out what their fans want and then get a professional accessibility audit of the stadium done.
“We don't feel we are going above and beyond, we are just doing what we can to improve the matchday experience for our own fans and for those visiting East End Park,” he said.
“Our disabled supporters are incredibly loyal and have to deal with various problems to attend matches – one wheelchair user who has a season ticket travels regularly from Manchester by train. Putting it simply, it is the right thing to do.”
Users on the Euan’s Guide website, which was created in 2013, have been joining in the debate while reviewing stadiums across the UK.
Other adaptations suggested that are not difficult for grounds to implement include clubs fitting handrails beside chairs and adding extra seats in communal areas such as near catering.
Putting in spaces for cars to park next to the stadium entrance is essential and if that isn’t possible then creating drop-off and pick-up points is an alternative.
“In my experience of travelling to grounds across the country it doesn't matter if the stadium is big or small, or old or new – good access can be achieved by most clubs with the will to do it,” MacDonald added.
“The wider goal is to change attitudes from ticking a box to putting access and inclusion at the heart of how clubs operate and engage with their supporters. There is still some way to go.
“Clubs should be urged to embrace the opportunities afforded by technology. Online booking is often not available to people with access requirements.
“Likewise, having good quality, prominent information can really help to ease the anxieties of people who may be unsure about whether to go along to a match.
“One of the best ways to make this information available is to have an easy to find accessibility tab on a club website’s homepage with information, clear maps and video footage of the stadium or grounds.
“Alternative formats of this information, for example large print documents or audio versions of the information, should also be available.”
The August 2017 deadline for clubs to get their grounds up to scratch was originally set by the Premier League themselves in 2015.
It is unclear what, if any, sanctions there will be to clubs which don’t comply, however it is understood that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will push for better legislation and look to take legal proceedings against clubs that continue to flout the law.
A spokesperson for the Premier League said its clubs are working hard to enhance disabled fan access and that the commitment made by clubs is unprecedented for a single sport or sector.
“At some grounds, particularly older ones, there are challenging built environment issues and, given that stadiums are in use throughout the football season, there is a limited period in which significant structural work can be done,” he said.
“They are working through issues relating to planning, how to deal with new stadium development plans, how best to manage fan disruption or, in certain cases where they don’t own their facility, having to work with third parties."
Disability access in football - How is your club performing?
One of the largest football stadiums in Europe, Celtic Park Stadium it seems Celtic are doing well off the park as well as on it:
“Fantastic flat access and very friendly and helpful security staff. Celtic FC could not be more accommodating to disabled fans at home matches. The entire experience was exceptional.”
With a main stand originally built in 1928, Rangers have worked hard to make their ground accessible with many reviewers on Euan’s Guide saying it’s easier to get to than you would think:
“If you are a wheelchair user, there is easy access to the stadium itself, there are ramps within the stadium, disabled toilets and access to refreshment kiosks. Viewing facilities were great and under cover.”
Home of Hibernian Football Club, this stadium has clearly put a lot of thought into accessibility:
“Access to Easter Road was amazingly good. There are accessible wheelchair spaces in each stand and at various locations. Each stand, the hospitality suites, the club store, and the Hibernian Learning Centre all have accessible areas.”
Tynecastle Stadium 4★
Loved by Hearts fans and praised by one wheelchair user, Tynecastle has been rated 4 stars for accessibility:
“Very accessible from Gorgie Road with an entrance from main road through a gate beside the turnstiles. The wheelchair area is really good as it is in the middle of the upper and lower section in three of the four stands, and there is a great view of the game.”
Home of the Bairns, Falkirk may have a reputation as being bitterly cold, but it certainly offers a warm welcome to all football fans:
“With plenty of parking and very good level access into the stadium, it is one of the better grounds not in the top division of Scottish football that is worth a visit! The entrance to the stand is level and there is separate access for wheelchair users so there is less chance of getting caught up in the crowd.”
If you want to read more reviews or submit your own visit euansguide.com.