'Progress Made - But Disabled Fans Need More'

To mark Level Playing Field's Weeks of Action, Amy Wilson from the Everton Disabled Supporters’ Association (EDSA) discusses her experiences of watching the Blues home and away, recent improvements in accessibility - and why there is still much to be done... 

We all know the type of moment.

A tight game, away from home, the team has given everything, and they’re on the attack in search of an injury-time winner.

Moments later, the ball is in the net and there’s bedlam in the stands. Evertonians hug, they cheer… it’s a moment they will all relive to anyone who’ll listen in the office on Monday morning. A moment they felt a part of.

For the wheelchair user watching from their allocated position on the opposite side of the stadium, jeers from the home fans raining down behind them, the moment is somewhat less euphoric.

Commendable progress has been made in recent years and I am thankful to say experiences like the above are now few and far between, particularly at Premier League grounds. But it wasn’t all that long ago that this was all too familiar.

The Premier League’s disability pledge in 2015 brought important improvements. It saw all 20 clubs commit to enhancing access and facilities for disabled supporters after it was found that 17 top-flight stadiums had inadequate wheelchair user and easy-access seating.

As a wheelchair user, I go to almost every game home and away, and the experience of watching Everton across the country has unquestionably improved since my first away match in 1999.

However, there is still more clubs – and fans – could do to help disabled supporters enjoy the best possible matchday experience.

While the number of viewing platforms and accessible seating options across the league has increased, my experience is that the disabled sections at around half the stadiums either have no access to concourses, or access is narrow and concourse space tight, making it impossible to stay there too long.

Think about what that means. The games I go to, a group of my closest friends and often many members of my family, are there too. At those stadiums where concourse access is limited or non-existent, I can’t see them before the game or during half-time. On occasions, when I’ve not been able to leave the platform, friends have come to speak to me and been moved on by stewards. Like any Evertonian, the social aspect of the game - sharing the high, the lows and debriefing what we’ve seen on the pitch - is a treasured part of the matchday experience, yet it is one that is still too often taken away.

Signage to entrances, viewing areas and the all-important accessible toilets could often be better, and it is not uncommon for staff or stewards to speak to my companion, rather than putting their question directly to me instead. This is not malicious but more likely an example of a lack of understanding or training that could easily be fixed. It is, however, always frustrating when it happens. Through the Everton Disabled Supporters’ Association (EDSA), we are pulling together a campaign to help raise awareness of this problem but a simple message to anyone would be that we are fans like every other fan. We love football, we love Everton… and we love to talk about both! 

When we can get on the concourses – and this is an issue many of my friends have also encountered – you often find groups of people stood close to or in front of the accessible toilets. I am as aware as anyone of how little space there can be on concourses, and I also know it is not something many people would do deliberately. However, I do encourage supporters I meet to be more aware of where they are standing at games, and how it may impact others. And also to be aware that the doors to accessible toilets typically open outwards, as I have often found myself apologising for pushing a door into someone I had no chance of seeing!

The same point also goes for narrow corridors and walkways at stadiums. It’s great when we bump into a familiar face or old friends coming the other way. But moving into a bigger, more open space before continuing your catch up could make a huge difference to a wheelchair user trying to get on or off the concourse.

Amy Wilson
We have taken part in several consultations with staff at the Club who are as committed and eager as EDSA to ensure none of these currently unavoidable issues carry over to Bramley-Moore Dock and that what is created down by the River Mersey is not only a world-class football stadium but a blueprint for accessibility.

Sightlines remain an issue at some stadiums. There have been certain games, including some this season, where our disabled fans have been able to see little but the wall of people stood in front of us. The fault in every instance is with the stadium design, but I would urge fans to be mindful if their seat is in front of a disabled section and, if necessary, check that anyone behind you in a wheelchair can see and try to do what you can to help disabled fans behind have a better view.

If wheelchair positions are situated at the front of the stand, be mindful of that, too, and understanding when celebrating a goal. In what should be a jubilant moment, it can be quite frightening to feel a group of people surge forwards behind you, albeit in buoyant mood! Disabled fans want to celebrate that goal just as much as any fan, but often our celebrations are tempered so we don’t get hurt in the post-goal joy or we don’t hurt any of our fellow fans, which we would never want to do!

Finding accessible pubs is still tricky and, again, can deprive many disabled fans of a huge social element of going the match. Car parking and accessible transport is rarely faultless.

Of course, the construction of the accessibility towers and platforms have significantly improved the provision for home fans at Goodison Park. However, I know from speaking to supporters of other clubs, and through being a member of EDSA, that Goodison is a stadium where accessibility issues remain for some of our supporters, as well as away supporters.

EDSA have worked with the Club to ensure the maximum is being done within the possibilities a 130-year-old stadium affords, and we regularly push to ensure our staff and stewards have the knowledge and understanding to make the experience of watching a game at Goodison as positive as it can be.

More importantly, we have taken part in several consultations with staff at the Club who are as committed and eager as EDSA to ensure none of these currently unavoidable issues carry over to Bramley-Moore Dock and that what is created down by the River Mersey is not only a world-class football stadium but a blueprint for accessibility. As you can imagine, that is huge for us as we look forward to the move.

Like I have mentioned, much has kicked on in recent years, and I am truly thankful for that. Since the Premier League Disability Pledge, the number of wheelchair users at matches has increased significantly and our away following has never been bigger.

We are seeing more younger fans at away games, because they have a greater opportunity to build match credits. And many fans go to every game home and away, meaning we have become a close-knit community of friends.

Poor design means some stadiums will never be perfect but everyone – clubs, stewards, fans - can play their part in helping disabled fans experience everything other supporters do on a matchday.

I always say, just be aware. Believe me, something as simple as taking a step back to clear a path for someone in a wheelchair, stopping to involve someone in a conversation about the Toffees, or celebrating in a happy but safe manner, can help them have a great matchday. And that’s all any Evertonian wants. Up the Toffees!