For the majority of supporters returning to stadiums this month there is giddiness around the resumption of familiar routines. Every regular has missed that first sight of the pitch and longed for the roar when a last-minute winner is scored but for as long as coronavirus poses a live threat the simple act of clicking through a turnstile appears less straightforward for a significant minority.
Going to the match as a disabled supporter has always been a logistical challenge requiring precise organisation from doorstep to the stands and with more than three quarters of disabled supporters considered “high risk” throughout the pandemic the anticipation of many is being diluted by apprehension.
As Cam Wood, an Aston Villa regular who has previously detailed his experiences as a disabled supporter, says: “Disabled fans like myself have worked so hard to keep themselves safe from the virus so to go back into a football ground full of people is a massive risk. It’s going to take some guts because these people have not been out in 18 months, yet alone to a stadium full of people who they don’t even know.”
A survey published by the charity Level Playing Field this week said that one in five disabled supporters do not want to return immediately, while 73% have no concern and 7% remain uncertain or undecided.
Their poll had 1,4000 responses and, separate to the pandemic, a quarter said that “anxiety or lack of confidence” was a barrier for them when attending live sport. Almost a third felt that there were certain sports or venues that they felt unable to attend due to lack of accessibility.
Disabled fans have been classed as “high risk” during the pandemic
For LPF’s chair, Tony Taylor, the fears and worries relating to the virus are clear but much of it serves as an exacerbation of familiar issues rather than presenting new problems.
“People who are in the clinically extremely vulnerable group and have been socially distancing are extremely cautious about things,” he says before suggesting that the scenes of ticketless fans mindlessly targeting disabled areas at Wembley for England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy has increased the reticence of many.
“There’s an issue around general security for disabled supporters,” Taylor adds and it extends far beyond what happens inside the grounds. “Even before the pandemic, if you asked me to name problems facing disabled supporters, the fact is getting to the stadium is always an issue,” he says. “Particularly as we head towards a more liberal approach to pandemic it’s a real problem in terms of A) getting transport organised and B) feeling safe. Personally I’d feel uncomfortable doing it now.”
A bespoke approach is being taken in terms of additional measures to ease the fears of disabled supporters once inside, although last week a couple of supporter groups affiliated to Premier League clubs said that they had received no information regarding potential provisions.
Taylor describes it as a “fluid situation” and there is a feeling that new best practices will be learnt from experience in the next couple of months. Several EFL clubs are planning to introduce sections where masks are mandatory and there is a hope that will include disabled areas, while the potential of vaccine passports becoming a condition of entry could become another hurdle.
“If you’re a wheelchair user, you may have an assistant with you and if there’s an insistence on passports what happens if the assistant changes at the last minute?” Taylor says. “These are just some of the practical issues facing fans.”
But the Premier League is far better equipped than many clubs further down the pyramid. In the past Wood has gone to Hereford, his local non-League side, but is now put off by the inferior standard of facilities.
It is an issue of funding more than anything else, another example of the gulf in resources between the elite and those below, and Taylor is keen to point out several National League clubs quietly went way beyond what was expected of them to help supporters during the pandemic.
Yet the ultimate point remains: for those with accessibility issues less modern stadiums are not welcoming.
“When you go to their ground, you are sat in a box that’s at pitch level,” Wood says of Hereford’s Edgar Street. “You can hardly see anything because it’s so low to the ground and it’s really difficult. All you can really see is the players’ ankles and it might sound weird but that’s what it is like.
“When you look at lower league teams, they struggle because they haven’t got the money ploughed into them to help make the matchday experience the best it possibly can for fans like us. I don’t like to go to lower league matches because the quality of experience for a fan like me is of such a lower standard compared to what you get at a Premier League ground.”
Changes can still be made to improve the matchday experience
Taylor was impressed by the work of many clubs to ensure supporters with disabilities remained engaged throughout the past 18 months as simple gestures like a phone call from a player or the delivery of some merchandise have gone a long way to boosting the morale of those shielding.
“For a lot of disabled supporters their only opportunity to get out and meet other people is to get involved at a match,” he says. “People have not had that opportunity to communicate, so whether it’s Everton or MK Dons, to have a player ring you up is a big boost to the individual. Clubs have done so much in a whole host of areas and can hold their heads up after getting a bit of stick from certain politicians.”
That is not to say there is major room for improvement, particularly when it comes to stewards being adequately trained to deal with specific requirements not applicable to other supporters.
Wood’s biggest gripe is having his view of the pitch impeded by persistent standing in front of the wheelchair areas at Villa Park. The 24-year-old, who serves as the youth chair of the Football v Homophobia group, has spoken to the club about it but is resigned to his sightline being obscured again this season.
“We can’t stand up and therefore we can’t see what’s going on,” he says. “So then we have to rely on the personal assistants with us to tell us what’s going on and how is that making our matchday experience any good? We may as well stay at home to watch it if that’s always going to be the case.”
Taylor is semi-ambulant and sometimes goes to games on crutches. In the not too distant past he had a steward attempt to take them from him because they were considered a weapon.
Yet invisible disabilities are arguably the most significant problem when it comes to stadium staff and fellow supporters being unable to recognise potential problems.
“Most people imagine someone using a wheelchair, all blue badges reflect that, but there are so many that are important and don’t require a wheelchair,” Taylor says. “It might be someone on the spectrum and that’s somewhere football has gone and led the way in terms of breakout areas and rooms.
“But we’ve had examples in the past of stewards assuming someone was drunk because not walking in a straight line when it was down to disability. It’s important to have them properly trained.”