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17 May 2024 | Comment | Article by Sami Palmer-Latif

Accessible Football | A Must Win

Sami Palmer-Latif, Senior Associate in our Serious Injury department, discusses the issue of accessibility at football stadiums for those who are wheelchair dependent this Spinal Cord Injury Day.

In the month of May, as the football season approaches its denouement with cheers and tears aplenty in grounds around the country, we mark Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day. It is as apt a time as ever to reflect on how well accessibility related issues are being managed by different clubs. Disability in this accessibility context can encompass a wide range of conditions but, for the purpose of this blog, I shall focus on fans with a spinal cord injury who are wheelchair dependant.

It is estimated that there are approximately 50,000 people in the UK living with a spinal cord injury. The annual incidence of new spinal cord injuries stands at approximately 2,500 individuals. A significant proportion of these individuals will be ardent fans of the most popular sport in the country. As a serious injury solicitor who specialises in spinal cord injury claims, I see this with clients of mine.

The Legislation

The Equality Act 2010 makes provision for nine distinct characteristics, one of which is disability, to be protected by law. Section 20 of the Act mandates that sports clubs and providers make reasonable adjustments so that everyone has access and there is no exemption for private clubs. Sports clubs have a continuous anticipatory duty to meet the reasonable needs of disabled people. This means that proportionate positive steps must be taken; they must be proactive rather than only reactive. At a football match this will span an array of things that relate to services and facilities.  Failings in this regard may constitute discrimination. The legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments can be traced back over 25 years to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 but how this has been interpreted and applied at football clubs and stadiums across the country is variable.

In 2003, the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) published the Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG) good practice guide, which was subsequently updated in 2015. This guide offers advice on the provision of wheelchair user spaces, amenity and easy seating, changing place facilities, toilets, accessible services and more. The ASG is recognised as a minimum standard for designers, access consultants and sports ground management. All Premier League Clubs voluntarily pledged to meet the standards set out in the ASG. However, not all met the deadline of August 2017. Whilst location, existing infrastructure, capacity and resources were and still are frequently cited as limitations, the Premier League is the richest league in the world and cannot use affordability as a barrier to undertaking work. Not only should they be meeting minimum standards but exceeding them.

Premier League Clubs

In 2017, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced their ‘State of Play’ report in which they set out what Premier League clubs were doing for disabled people. The Commission is entrusted as an independent regulator with the statutory duty to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination. Some of the common issues which clubs need to have regard to include:

  • Access statements
  • Training for staff
  • Ticketing
  • Engagement with supporters

Where it is suspected that there may be an unlawful breach, section 23 of the Equality Act 2006 empowers the EHRC to enter into an agreement with the organisation in question. The agreement details the actions the organisation has committed to.  The position can then be monitored and, if necessary, enforcement action can be taken if a club fails to follow through on its commitments.

Fair for all

Being able to maintain interests and access community amenities, like live football, without encumbrance is imperative for disabled and non-disabled persons alike. After a traumatic incident which has rendered someone paraplegic or tetraplegic, they will usually require many months of inpatient clinical treatment and management before they are in a position for a safe discharge to the community. The transition from an institutional setting to a home setting brings with it many new challenges and being able to reintegrate into the community goes in step with the enhancement of physical and psychological well being.

Attending a major event such as a football match as a newly injured person can be an unnerving prospect because of uncertainties about how the experience will be. Whether or not such an experience is counted as a success by the individual concerned may determine if it is repeated and becomes a part of their ongoing rehabilitation journey or if they feel deterred by it. Clients not only wish to have this as an achievable goal but to be able to maintain it in a safe and reliable way.

I have attended football matches with individuals who are wheelchair dependant and witnessed first-hand some of the challenges that exist. Whilst it is recognised that size, location and logistics can all be of some relevance to how needs are met, there is still much more that can be done to make for a more inclusive, choice led and holistic fan experience, whether they be a regular attendee or not.

Accessible football seating

Take, for example, the provision of wheelchair accessible seating. Not only is the provision in numbers important, but also ensuring that there is a distribution in different parts of the stadium rather than an overly limited area which only gives rise to a sense of differentiation. Fans don’t want to be feel they are isolated from family and friends, and the main immersive experience.  Similarly, another example relates to hospitality suites at stadia. There is only limited hospitality provision for wheelchair users across Premier League clubs. Furthermore, for season and non-season ticket holders alike, if such facilities are to serve as areas for all fans to relax and socialise, they should offer wheelchair suitable tables and spaces interspersed throughout the suite that promote inclusivity and they should be proximate to the wheelchair spaces for the match, otherwise there is not the same quality of match day experience.

Consider also the issue of the transferability of tickets. If a non-disabled person can transfer their ticket to a family member, friend or another person of their choosing, but a fan with a spinal cord injury is only able to transfer their ticket to another disabled person or return it for resale, where is the parity of position? Is flexible seating which enables the temporary installation and removal of a seat in a wheelchair space not capable of featuring more widely? At the same time, we see recent reports in the press of non-disabled fans posing as disabled fans to access tickets.

The Women’s Super League is still in its relative infancy compared to the Premier League, having only been established in 2010, but the associated clubs also have to fully address their legal duties pursuant to the Equality Act.

Football fan

Every person goes to a match for the same purpose as a fan: to offer their team collective support (however misplaced support for that team might be) and hopefully come away with a win at the final whistle. The fact that a fan happens to be a wheelchair user is secondary to this purpose. To see it otherwise is to view the person as a wheelchair user first rather than a fan. There have been a lot of changes for the better in recent years but as some clubs are still falling short of minimum requirements for wheelchair user spaces, amongst other things, there is still much to be done to accord greater priority and urgency to equality issues that confer independence and quality of life for fans with spinal cord injuries.

Author bio

Sami Palmer-Latif

Senior associate

Sami Palmer-Latif is a Senior Associate within the Serious Injury Department at Hugh James. He has over 15 years’ experience across a wide spectrum of personal injury litigation.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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