Disabled campaigners are furious that an organisation that fights discrimination in football has given a prestigious equality award to one of the world’s richest football clubs, Chelsea, despite its continuing refusal to provide enough seats for wheelchair-users.
It is the second time the organisation Kick It Out has awarded its Advanced Equality Standard to a Premier League club that fails to meet recommended levels of wheelchair spaces.
Chelsea Football Club only has 127 spaces for wheelchair-users at its Stamford Bridge ground, out of a capacity of about 42,000, far below the recommended level of 214 wheelchair-accessible spaces.
The club is owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, and is the seventh richest in the world, with an estimated revenue of 388 million euros in 2013-14.
But despite the club’s record on accessible spaces, on 3 May Kick It Out (KIO) awarded Chelsea its Advanced Equality Standard, the highest of three levels of an award that recognises all protected equality characteristics, and “seeks to encourage professional clubs to be inclusive across all areas of its business”.
KIO originally withheld the award because of the club’s failure to meet requirements on disability access, but reconsidered when the club agreed to provide 27 additional wheelchair spaces, taking the total to 127.
Joyce Cook (pictured), chair of the user-led Level Playing Field, which represents disabled sports fans, said her organisation was “deeply disappointed” by the Chelsea award.
She said: “When considering an advanced award in any walk of life, surely it is not unreasonable to expect the recipient to meet best practice standards.”
She said LPF first discussed its concerns about the award scheme with KIO in 2012, after it awarded the Advanced Equality Standard to Aston Villa, even though the Premier League club had also performed poorly on disability access.
She said: “We requested the meeting following complaints from disabled fans who had been outraged by KIO’s decision.
“We were reassured at the time that greater consideration and consultation with LPF and other accessibility experts would be taken by KIO going forward to ensure that access and inclusion for disabled fans would be a core part of their decision process and to ensure that we could each offer the best support to clubs in putting things right.”
But despite this agreement, the first LPF knew about last week’s award to Chelsea was when reading the news on KIO’s website.
Cook said: “We are now seeking urgent talks with Kick it Out and wish to reassure disabled fans that have contacted us about this latest award that we will be putting forward their serious concerns very clearly in our ongoing discussions.
“An equality standard must surely consider all aspects of the Equality Act and those protected by it if it is to be credible, valued and recognised by the communities it serves.
“For disabled people and football clubs, that has to include match-day accessibility and true inclusion for disabled fans. Clearly that just isn’t the case at the moment.”
In February, the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner, Lord [Chris] Holmes, said that Premier League football clubs would be guilty of a “scandalous” failure if they did not use some of a multi-billion pound TV rights windfall to improve access at their grounds.
The Conservative peer spoke out in the wake of the announcement that the Premier League had secured more than £5.1 billion from the sale of live UK television rights for the three seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19.
A Kick It Out spokesman said in a statement: “The club has acknowledged the figure remains below the recommended capacity of 214 for wheelchair spaces in new-build stadiums outlined in the [Football Licensing Authority’s] Accessible Stadia Guide.
“The age and layout of Stamford Bridge, as is the same for many other clubs, is prohibitive in the number and variety of disabled spaces that can be provided, but provision is under constant review.”
He said that KIO decided to grant the award to Chelsea following a process that included two access audits, consultations with disabled supporters, an increase in the total number of wheelchair spaces to 127, and “an ongoing commitment to improve accessibility”.
He said the decision was taken “on the basis of the demonstrable evidence that Chelsea FC were aware of the deficiencies, were taking the matter with the seriousness warranted, and were actively pursuing access improvements and taking action to provide reasonable adjustments”.
He added: “A meeting between Kick It Out and Level Playing Field is currently being arranged between the chairs of the two parties to resolve any outstanding concerns.
“Kick It Out will continue to work collaboratively with both Chelsea FC and Level Playing Field to address deficiencies where possible and to provide guidance and support.”
A Chelsea spokesman said in a statement that the club was “delighted” with the award, which “serves as inspiration to continue and develop the wide range of equality programmes and initiatives the club undertakes”.
He said: “We are aware of the limited facilities for disabled fans at Stamford Bridge.
“Like many clubs with older grounds we are hampered by the age and layout of the stadium.
“We keep our disabled facilities at Stamford Bridge under continual review to see what improvements can be made and it is an issue we take extremely seriously.”
He admitted that work on the new North Stand started in 1993, on the Shed End in 1994, and on the first tier of the West Stand in 1997.
He added: “Stamford Bridge has not been completely renovated at any one time. The stands have all been re-built one by one and all conformed to the relevant legislation at that time.”
But when asked what the club’s excuse was for not introducing more accessible spaces, when three-quarters of the ground had been rebuilt over the last 22 years, while its revenue was about 400 million euros a year, he refused to comment further.