I’ve decided not to renew my Premier League season ticket – there are still far too many obstacles for people like me
After the summer break, many football fans will be looking forward to the start of the new Premier League season. But for some disabled supporters like me it’s a reminder that there is still a long way to go towards making the sport inclusive.
I love football and held a season ticket at West Ham United from 2016-18. But I didn’t renew it last season and I won’t this year because I don’t believe disabled football fans are treated as they deserve to be.
Under the Equality Act 2010, clubs are required by law to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. To start with, however, this is ambiguous. What exactly constitutes a reasonable adjustment? It is subjective and can be interpreted differently. Nor does it go far enough. There’s more to inclusion than just ensuring there are enough wheelchair spaces, or publishing an access statement online. The whole match-day experience matters.
Take, for example, providing suitable toilet facilities. More than a quarter of a million people across the UK need fully accessible toilets known as “changing places”. Standard accessible toilets aren’t always suitable because they don’t include a hoist or adult-sized changing bench – and they are usually too small.
Changing places toilets give disabled people greater independence. Yet according to new research by Muscular Dystrophy UK, only 75% of Premier League clubs – West Ham included – have registered one, though some football grounds have provided temporary solutions. Thousands of people with severe disabilities can’t experience the simple pleasure of watching a football match because they are denied a basic human right: the use of a toilet.
Even if there is a suitable toilet, it will often be filthy or out of use. I’ve been to games where facilities haven’t been locked, which inevitably means non-disabled fans end up using them. Installing a universal Radar key, for use only by disabled people, prevents this from happening. Of course, people should take responsibility for their actions and use disabled toilets only if there is a genuine need. But clubs also have a responsibility to ensure their facilities are properly maintained and available.
On more than one occasion, however, I’ve been unable to use a toilet at a match because it had been locked completely without even the Radar key working. Enduring hours of having to hold it in is a horrible experience.
Football is supposed to inspire camaraderie and passion, but some disabled fans are forced to watch the game alone as not all clubs reserve spaces for friends and family to sit alongside them. Sometimes wheelchair users must also sit with supporters of the opposing team. That can be daunting. In that sense I’m lucky because at West Ham’s London stadium I was always able to sit with my partner. But we were so far away from other West Ham supporters that we didn’t experience the same atmosphere or sense of belonging as everyone else. The positioning of this seating was also open to the elements. I struggled with the cold and couldn’t even have a hot drink to warm up because there are no food stalls up in the stands. I would often go without eating or drinking the whole time I was there because it was too difficult to get down to the busy concourse.
The first time I bought a season ticket there was no information about the evacuation procedure for disabled people, nor could I see any signs in the stadium advising on what to do in an emergency. The lack of information panicked me. I couldn’t focus on the game.
All disabled people should have full and equal access to all areas of society. Sport is important to many of us, but reasonable adjustments still aren’t being made for disabled spectators. Far too often our experience of watching games is inferior to that of non-disabled people. I’d love to go to watch my team play this season, but my past experiences have put me off.
Premier League clubs have a lot to learn. They must engage with disabled fans. They must listen to our feedback and, more importantly, they must take it on board and take action.
Vicki Dennis is a disability rights campaigner with Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers network