Disabled supporters – safety comes first

A wheelchair-bound Fulham fan talks with a steward.

A wheelchair-bound Fulham fan talks with a steward.

By Thomas Hewitt

In 2014, the government called on Britain’s football clubs to take urgent action to address the lack of support for disabled spectators at stadiums across the country. Is football continuing to overlook the needs of the disabled who want to participate in football activities and watch games in person?

Racist behaviour is immediately condemned. A YouTube video shows Chelsea supporters preventing a black Frenchman from boarding a Paris metro train before last week’s Champions League last 16 tie between Paris St. Germain and Chelsea. Their racist chanting left little doubt as to their motives. Video footage has emerged of another group of men, thought to be West Ham United supporters, chanting anti-Semitic songs on a train in north London on the way to the last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham at White Hart Lane.

It is unacceptable in a civilised society for people to ridicule or discriminate against another individual because of the colour of their skin or their ethnic background. Racism is a vile act and rightfully needs to be addressed within football, but what is being done in relation to the abuse of the disabled?

As a man who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism, for over five years, I can understand in a sense why some individuals might turn a blind eye (so to speak) to this topic. Regardless, the Football Association needs to continue to examine the treatment of the disabled at football matches to improve the situation. What does it say about us as people, if we are abusing and mistreating a disabled person who is, for instance, confined to a wheel chair for the duration of their life? Abusers are cowards.

A prime example of this occurred in 2014 during a Champions League match in Paris between Paris St Germain and Chelsea Football Club. Home fans spat at and threw bottles and coins in the path of wheelchair bound Chelsea supporters. The disabled away supporters had been placed in the middle of the Paris St Germain support. The five Chelsea fans alleged that they were abused throughout the duration of the match, with one saying in her statement that she suffered a panic attack at the final whistle.

Lisa Hayden, a wheelchair user and Chelsea season ticket holder who attended that game, labelled the incident as “Very terrifying. I felt that we didn’t stand a chance in there and that someone was going to get seriously injured.”

As a result of these appalling actions, UEFA’s control, ethics and disciplinary board ordered the partial closure of sections 104 and 105 of Paris St Germain’s ‘Parc des Princes’ Stadium for their next Champions League game. UEFA had never before charged a team over the abuse of disabled football supporters.

Another similar incident transpired following a Premier League game that took place in January 2015 involving Swansea City and Chelsea. At the conclusion of the match, a 16-year-old Chelsea fan who was diagnosed with a form of autism, was verbally abused and punched in the face by three Swansea City supporters. The disabled football supporter was left needing hospital treatment for facial and eye injuries.

The father of the victim was appalled that other people could harm his son following the ending of the match. “How could somebody do this to a young boy? It is a disgusting and cowardly thing to do.”

Are football clubs and football leagues doing enough to defend the disabled? It seems that UEFA and the police are beginning to discipline – and justly so – the repulsive mistreatment suffered by some disabled citizens. Clubs themselves in the United Kingdom have begun to launch their own specific strategies and protocols designed to help disabled people support their club.

Since the Equality Act in 2010 and legislation dating back to 1995, it is illegal for football clubs to treat disabled people less favourably than other individuals. Clubs with older stadiums are also not exempt. They are lawfully obliged to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that impaired supporters can access their facilities.

Dunfermline Athletic, a Scottish league one football club, have altered their stadium to accommodate the needs of wheelchair supporters by constructing a large protective screen situated at the front of the Norrie McCathie Stand, which will help protect them from possible negligence and precarious weather conditions.

The vast majority of football clubs in England have set policies and guidelines in regard to the protection of disabled supporters, which are displayed on their official websites, that are designed to showcase their utmost commitment and dedication to providing the best possible security and more importantly, experience, whilst attending a football match. Certain clubs have also formed their own disabled supporters associations that are designed to deliver a voice for these individuals to express their opinions on club matters and other meaningful engagements that ultimately, will deliver a better experience while attending football matches.

Football clubs, leagues and associations must do their bit and provide for the needs of the disabled, that is for sure. Only a minority of Premier League clubs have the minimum required spaces for the impaired. One club has even installed advertisement boards that have severely restricted the views of wheelchair supporters. But it is also up to us – the supporters – to be more conscientious and sensible when it comes to recognizing the needs of fellow supporters who are categorized as being disabled.