Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disabled soccer fans in Scotland push for equal access to matches

From The Herald in Scotland. Pictured is Evelyn Tarleton, who is unable to access the thousands of seats that other season ticket holders take for granted.

Scottish football clubs are discriminating against supporters in wheelchairs, and denying themselves tens of thousands of pounds in the process, it has been claimed.

Disability campaigners and sport fans say there is not enough provision for wheelchair users at top clubs.

And while Scottish Premier League clubs might meet legal standards, campaigners warn they are failing in their moral obligations to offer equal access.

The call comes as many teams struggle against falling revenues and mounting costs, so the prospect of any new revenue could be vital.

With 100,000 registered wheelchair users in Scotland, or about 1.8% of the population, campaigners argue that the limited numbers at football grounds do not reflect the potential market, sometimes referred to as the “orange pound”.

Alan Dickson, chief executive of Capability Scotland and board member of the International Paralympic Committee, said he believes that clubs want to do the right thing but are not taking the chance to welcome more fans.

He said: “It appears that the amount of accessible seating at football grounds does not currently reflect the needs of Scotland’s 100,000 registered wheelchair users.

“Figures from the Scottish Household survey indicate that removing the physical barriers at football stadiums could result in up to 40% more disabled fans attending matches.

“By failing to take action to make stadiums more accessible, clubs could be losing out on a potentially very large source of income. And this figure is likely to increase as Scotland’s population continues to age. Improving accessibility for disabled people is good news for all fans who may experience mobility problems at some stage in their life.

“Scotland has a real opportunity to lead in building truly accessible facilities. Clubs should be taking action to meet the legal duty and moral duty.

“There is a group of people who, if they can access the ground, will be more than happy to pay to see the game.”

Celtic Park has provision for 122 wheelchairs in its home section, but the club would need more than 1000 to match the proportion of wheelchairs users in the population. Hearts have 108, but would need about 300, and Rangers could have 900 instead of their current 65.

Fans argue that as well as seat provision, other basics must be addressed: why put a line of stewards directly in front of wheelchair fans on ground level? Do fans get a choice of whether they sit in a sheltered stand or are exposed to rain in open areas where disabled seats are often placed? Can a wheelchair-using fan reach the counter of food outlets?

Peter Stirling, a season ticket holder with St Johnstone who broke his neck at the age of 27 and has been in a wheelchair since, helped evaluate some first division clubs for Capability Scotland.

He said lower-level clubs often fared better than SPL clubs because, he argues, they still remember their fan base.

The 54-year-old said: “They go out of their way to help me. Some of the smaller clubs are more homely and they are trying harder than the SPL. There’s quite a lot of money in the disabled community in terms of spending power. If the top clubs did go out of their way, then they would get revenue.”

UEFA rules state that for national games, there must be a minimum of 50 wheelchair spots. A spokeswoman said access requirements would be increased for the Euro 2016 tournament.

A spokesman for the SPL said clubs were bound by legislation and the Green Guide which governs safety at sports grounds.

He said: “There is always more that can be done though and our clubs would clearly aspire to deliver over and above what the legislation requires of them if their resources permitted them to do so.

“At a more general level, improving the spectator experience is very important to us at the SPL.

“This season we have sent in fans ‘undercover’ to report back on how they are catered for and we will be using those reports to encourage clubs to raise standards across the board.”

A spokesman for Hearts said that the club’s stadium offered the best views for disabled fans in Scotland.

A spokesman for Celtic said: “Celtic Football Club is delighted to have achieved the Positive about Disability Award.

“At all times we endeavour to cater for the needs of our disabled supporters and are currently in the process of reviewing and developing our disabled facilities.”

A Rangers spokesman said the club met regularly with individual supporters and groups in an effort to improve access and were constantly making “incremental improvements”.

He added: “Older football stadia, including Ibrox, by their design do not lend themselves easily to open access for all because the need for good sightlines and for safe access and egress in the event of an emergency creates steep gradients and multiple stairwells and sections.

“However, the club has in the past four years developed new raised wheelchair accessible viewing areas both for home and visiting support, additional ambulant allocation and access toilet provision and will continue to make improvements where it is feasible and reasonable to do so and where there is a proven need.”