Football’s Premier League clubs have agreed to transform access at their grounds, following a 14-year campaign by disabled supporters.
The Premier League announced this week that every one of its 20 clubs would have to meet standards laid out in guidance 12 years ago by the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
The Accessible Stadia Guide includes guidelines on car parking, accessible information, the minimum number of wheelchair spaces for spectators, location of viewing areas for disabled supporters, and staff training.
When it was published in 2003, the chair of the National Association of Disabled Supporters (NADS) – now renamed Level Playing Field – said in its introduction that NADS and its members were looking forward “to the implementation and application” of its recommendations.
Now, 12 years later, Premier League clubs appear ready to put those recommendations finally into action.
In recent months, Disability News Service and other media organisations, particularly the BBC, have published a series of embarrassing reports into the discrimination faced by disabled supporters at many Premier League grounds.
This week’s announcement by the Premier League represents a complete turnaround from its position less than four months ago, when its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, said there were “practical reasons” why some clubs could not provide more spaces for wheelchair-users.
The announcement came on the day that the government published a report calling on clubs in football – and other spectator sports, including cricket and rugby – to take “urgent action” to provide appropriate “support and space for disabled spectators”.
Among its comments, the report says: “Some respondents [to a small survey] also expressed concern that, at some grounds, they couldn’t sit with their own supporters when they attended away games.
“Not only did this have an effect on their enjoyment but [it] had risks, as supporters from opposing teams are generally segregated [for safety reasons].”
It also discusses barriers faced by disabled supporters, including the “lack of wheelchair user places… poor sight lines because the seat was on the same level as the sporting event, always sitting at the front of stands so not sheltered from the weather and unsafe wheelchair viewing areas even in modern grounds”.
Joyce Cook (pictured), chair of Level Playing Field, said her organisation was “totally delighted” with the Premier League’s announcement.
She said: “The promises made today will ensure that many more disabled fans can finally enjoy a fair and equal experience alongside fellow fans, friends and family.
“For disabled football fans this is huge news but, as always, the proof will be in the pudding.
“Level Playing Field looks forward to working with the Premier League and its clubs to deliver on their promises.”
Lord [Chris] Holmes, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability commissioner, welcomed the Premier League’s announcement, but said: “This is potentially a significant step in the right direction but we are mindful that there have also been a number of false starts in the past.
“We call on all Premier League clubs to follow through and deliver on the promises set out today.”
And he said the government’s report was “a valuable piece of work”.
He said: “The report paints an appalling picture of how disabled fans are being treated like second class citizens at sports grounds across the country.
“Given football is our national game and the Premier League is the richest in the world, it is shocking to see how poor the treatment of disabled fans is.
“We call on Premier League clubs to show leadership and all sports to provide better provision and a level playing field for disabled fans.”
Other disabled peers also welcomed the Premier League’s announcement.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson praised the work of Lord Holmes, a Conservative peer, who has asked a series of searching parliamentary questions on the issue, which she said had provided “a great catalyst”.
Lord Holmes called on his government to commit to “monitoring closely the Premier League to ensure that, be they old grounds or new grounds, come 2017 all grounds will meet minimum access requirements”.
And Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the Liberal Democrat president, praised Level Playing Field for its 14-year campaign.
She asked the government to ensure that clubs’ disability access officers “report not only on the physical space but also on the training of all staff involved in the provision of disability services”, and to encourage the appointment of disability access officers in the three divisions beneath football’s Premier League.
A Premier League spokeswoman said clubs had agreed at a meeting last week to make all their stadiums compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017, and to ensure there was an “appropriate” number of spaces for wheelchair-users – 10 per cent of their provision for home fans – in their away sections.
Each club will have to appoint a disability access officer, while wheelchair spaces, steward training, websites, ticketing policies and parking should all be given “urgent attention”.
The Premier League is currently assessing all of its 20 grounds to check where access standards can be improved, and the results of these assessments will be discussed with clubs “at a senior level”.
The Premier League spokeswoman added: “We look forward to reading the government’s report and will take on any information it provides.”
In a letter to members of the government’s Disability Action Alliance and other “key stakeholders”, Justin Tomlinson, minister for disabled people, and Tracy Crouch, minister for sport, tourism and heritage, said the Premier League’s announcement was “a huge achievement”.
But they said this was “not an excuse for complacency”, and added: “We have challenged all clubs, across all sporting disciplines, to bring spectator sport into the twenty-first century by making sure they are inclusive and accessible for all spectators and, in particular, we have called on our higher-level and wealthier clubs to set an example and act as fast as possible.”