In a summer that has seen the public enthralled by the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games, the Chair of Level Playing Field explains why equal access to sports stadia and arenas is essential in establishing true inclusion for disabled sports fans.
As a nation, we can certainly feel proud of London 2012 on so many levels. We were all captivated by the Opening Ceremony, and with the breath-taking Olympic performances that followed; for me it was difficult not to spend every day in front of the TV. I will never forget the roar as Paralympics GB entered the stadium on the opening night of the Paralympics and the incredible support that has followed at each event. In our wildest dreams could we truly have ever imagined such a joyous public celebration of disabled sports men and women? I recall a pundit describing the night as ‘a coming out party for disabled people’ and for me it certainly had that feel. And the finale with Beverly Knight’s rendition of ‘I am what I am’ – quite brilliant – to witness such a public celebration of difference and diversity with disabled people at centre stage – a true moment in time.
With less than a week to go before the Paralympic flame is extinguished, the abiding message of London 2012 – ‘inspiring a generation’ – resonates loudly with non-disabled and disabled sports men and women the clear stars of the Games. But there is another ‘superstar’ of London 2012, and that’s the sports fans at each event playing their part so well and in doing so, showing the British people at their very best.
Those spectators fortunate to have been at London 2012 will never forget their experiences. The feeling of collective pride and passion in being in a stadium at an iconic sporting moment is not easily described – you have to be there to really understand how it feels – ask any fan. It’s such a great experience, feeling included, ‘one of the fans’, cheering together and sharing the highs and lows – there’s nothing like it. We’re a sport loving nation and there are naturally an increasing number of disabled people who also wish to attend live events. London 2012 will undoubtedly inspire even more disabled people to want to watch live sports in their local area.
But for disabled spectators that can only happen if our stadia and sporting arenas are truly accessible and inclusive. That means providing equal and fair proportions of accessible seating (wheelchair spaces and easy-access seats alongside fellow fans, family and friends), accessible services (such as audio-description for blind fans), accessible information (websites, easy read, and signage), provisions for assistance dogs, accessible amenities, accessible transport links, drop-off points and parking and so on. That’s where we come in and never has our work seemed more important than now.
Level Playing Field, established in 1998, represents disabled sports fans and promotes equal access to sporting venues across England and Wales. In 2009, with UEFA support, we founded the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE) so that we could extend our works across Europe.
Level Playing Field works with sports governing bodies and event owners (including London 2012), their clubs and disabled fans advising on new sports stadia and improvements to existing facilities and services. We’ve made some significant progress on this front with existing good practice guidance, building regulations and legislation helping to ensure that planners, architects and event owners get it right when commissioning new venues.
Global sporting events such as London 2012 provide us with a great opportunity to improve access for the long-term with the Olympic Park showcasing what can be achieved and with each new venue set to provide a great legacy for disabled sports fans.
Our work is on-going and we have certainly made in-roads but there is still a great deal to be done before disabled sports fans can enjoy the same match day standards experienced by their non-disabled peers. Many of our top level sports venues still have much to do on this front and there is often talk about the difficulties of improving access to existing stadia. However, several have since shown that it’s very possible to provide low cost access solutions at older venues with smart thinking and the right commitment.
Of course, sports stadia crowds should also reflect our wider society and that includes disabled fans. The inclusive experiences shared by disabled people and their families and friends who watch live sports can also act as a powerful force for change by providing a sense of well-being and belonging. We have personal testimonies from disabled fans who describe life-changing moments in attending live sports for the first time that have given them the confidence to try other new activities and so by helped to improve their daily lives. Quite rightly, the feel-good factor of London 2012, especially for those who were there, is set to live long in our memories. But for disabled people to be able to be part of that same experience or any other for that matter, providing fair and inclusive access is absolutely critical.
So for me, our greatest London 2012 legacy for this sports loving nation will be in making sure that we finally level the playing field at all our sporting venues so that many more disabled fans can watch live sports each week with all the joy that brings and in turn, perhaps they will feel inspired to play or have-a-go. To accept anything less would be a compromise and the opportunity may be lost for another generation.