Football is arguably our nation’s favourite sport, and for fans it is also one of the most accessible. Emma Storr heads onto the pitch to find out why accessibility is so important for two Scottish football clubs.
The Scottish Premier Football League (SPFL) consists of 42 teams across four leagues with thousands of fans cheering players on at each game.
Football is for everyone – regardlessof ability. This is the philosophy of Celtic Football Club’s Disability Access Officer (DAO), Alexis Dobbin, and her counterpart at St Johnstone Football Club, Beverley Mayer.
The role of DAOs is to ensure that their club’s stadium is accessible for all supporters, home or away.
The supporters themselves are a key component to making football accessible. DAOs are there to ensure that all supporters have an enjoyable match day without the need to worry about a stadium’s facilities.
“The input of supporters when making decisions about stadium accessibility is vital,” stresses Beverly.
“Who better to look to for advice than the very people who will be using our facilities.”
Having supporters’ point of view allows stadiums to adapt and effectively implement changes big or small.
“These are the supporters who benefit the most by making our stadium as accessible as possible,” echoes Alexis.
“It is very important for clubs to have this information easily available to allow the supporters to plan in advance of attending the Stadium,” she adds.
Providing information for supporters should mean more than just having it, it should be promoted at every opportunity so that disabled fans don’t have to go out of their way to find it.
Where clubs like Celtic and St Johnstone are looking for new ideas to make their stadiums more accessible, they are also looking for feedback in order to improve.
“At a recent meeting, a personal assistant suggested we install a cup holder at each of the wheelchair bays,” remembers Beverly. “It is such a simple and relatively inexpensive idea, but at the same ti me it’s something that could prove to be very useful for supporters.”
With first-hand experience of what is required to make a stadium accessible, there is no one better to seek advice from than the disabled supporters themselves.
“These supporters face barriers in everyday life, therefore there is no one more qualified to assist,” states Alexis.
Football is more than just a game, it’s a way to bring people together, build friendships and tackle barriers in society.
“I feel that it is every person’s human right to be able to attend a football match without barriers being put in their way,” explains Alexis.
Regardless if you are playing or watching football, there is no doubt that it creates a connection between individuals who might otherwise miss out on regular social interaction.
“Football is a great leveller, promoting a sense of loyalty and belonging amongst fans and more importantly, it can help prevent social isolation,” adds Beverly.
These qualities of loyalty and belonging aren’t mutually exclusive to disabled and non-disabled football fans, they belong to everyone without discrimination.
“Disabled supporters are as valuable to a football club as their non-disabled counterparts,” emphasises Beverly.
“Whether they are buying replica kit at the club shop, having a drink in the match day bar, volunteering at the club’s open day, or simply lending their voices to the singing in the stands – they are all equally important to our clubs.”
Football clubs across Scotland are working to make their stadiums more accessible. For Celtic and St Johnstone this is a priority.
“Equal access should be promoted in all football stadiums, and football is a great way to promote disability access and inclusion,” emphasises Alexis.
Both clubs are going the extra mile to improve the match day experience for all supporters with input from their respective disabled supporters’ associations.
Over the last year DAOs from all levels of Scottish football have attended regular meetings to exchange ideas and suggestions with the hopes to make the sport accessible for everyone.
At Celtic Park accessible facilities include the option to have match day programme notes fed through audio for visually impaired fans, recorded by the club’s manager, Neil Lennon.
The stadium was the first in Scotland to install a Changing Places facility and has a sensory room for autistic children and young people.
Staff and stewards at St Johnstone’s stadium, McDiarmid Park, all receive disability awareness training and at your seat catering is available for wheelchair platform users.
The stadium’s new audio descriptive commentary system allows supporters to sit anywhere in the stadium, and accessible parking can be pre-booked ahead of match day to ensure a stress-free experience.
These are just a few of the facilities at the two stadiums. Football clubs across Scotland are continually going the extra mile to improve supporters’ experience, Alexis says:
“Football is seen as one of the world’s most popular sports, therefore it is very important to promote accessibility at all times.”
“There is sti ll a lot of work to be done,” adds Beverly. “We should never stop looking to improve upon what we have.”
Through the dedication of football clubs and their DAOs, Scottish football is quickly becoming one of the most accessible spectator sports in the world.