Are sports venues addressing accessibility?

February 29 2024

An estimated one billion people across the world live with a disability, many of whom are sports fans.

Are sports venues addressing accessibility?

Making sure that disabled fans have equal access to sports venues and live events is a crucial element of sustainability. Accessibility and inclusion are enshrined in law across many countries, and numerous charities, campaign groups and authorities have provided guidance on how venues can meet disabled fans’ needs.

But as sustainability strategies grow, and with major events on the horizon in 2024, how are sports venues stepping up to the plate?

Disability and the fan experience

Around 15% of the global population experience some form of disability. There are also an estimated four billion sports fans across the world, and a huge number of sports fans live with disability.

Disability can come in many forms, and includes wheelchair users and people with limited mobility, partially sighted and blind people, hard of hearing and deaf people, and those who have learning or intellectual disabilities, are neurodivergent, or who have a mental health condition.

Some estimate that less than 8% of disabled people are wheelchair users, and most disabled people have disabilities that may not be visible to others.

When it comes to attending live sports events, disabled fans face many potential barriers.

A lack of physically accessible spaces, inaccessible or limited transport options, inaccessible ticketing, a lack of signage or information, and no access to sensory rooms can often mean that fans with disabilities are unable to attend sporting events in person.

While awareness of sustainability is growing, an annual survey of disabled fans conducted by the Level Playing Field charity found that many of these issues are still commonplace across sport – and may even be getting worse.

The survey found that the number of disabled fans who agreed that difficulty purchasing tickets, a lack of accessibility, or anxiety or lack of confidence were barriers when attending live sport had all risen year on year.

Importantly, addressing disabled fans’ experiences of live sports events means acknowledging and addressing these barriers – rather than trying to ‘fix’ or erase impairments or disabilities.

This approach is called the Social Model of Disability, and many organisations that campaign for disabled fans’ access to live sport, including Level Playing Field and the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE), use this model.

Making sure that everyone has access to live sport, regardless of background or disability, is a sustainability issue. So, how are venues currently meeting the needs of disabled fans – and how are some of 2024’s biggest events set to address the challenge?

Creating accessible spaces

In many countries, legislation makes it a legal requirement for sports venues to meet the needs of disabled customers. In the UK, for example, the 2010 Equality Act dictates that clubs have a duty to ensure that fans can access their venues and enjoy the same level of access as non-disabled supporters.

There are plenty of resources to help clubs and venues anticipate access issues. In 2003, the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) published Accessible Stadia, a guidance document on designing facilities for disabled users. This was followed by further guidance in 2015.

Meanwhile, football’s European governing body UEFA and the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE) published their Access for All guide in 2011. But, despite the guidance in place, it seems that many disabled fans still find that physical access is a major barrier to attending live events.

Level Playing Field’s annual fan survey found last year that physical access to stadiums was the top barrier identified by respondents. Major access issues cover all aspects of a stadium’s facilities, including doors and entrances, signage and seating, accessible toilets, and facilities for guide dogs.

Recommendations from SGSA and Level Playing Field, for example, suggest that venues have inclusive seating plans that provide a choice of seating for wheelchair users, as well as easy access seating for spectators with limited mobility.

Other recommendations include installing a Changing Places toilet, having clear access routes, making signage frequent, and installing induction loops in ticket offices and shops.

Travel to sports venues is also key: without accessible transport options, many fans can be prevented from even getting to the venue.

Last year’s Level Playing Field fan survey found that fans reporting public transport inaccessibility as a major barrier had increased to 20%, up from 16% in 2021.

While clubs can play their part by working with local public transport providers, wider issues with public transport infrastructure can sometimes be out of control of clubs and venues.

As The Guardian reported last year, for example, plans to close rail ticket offices in England could have a huge effect on disabled fans’ ability to travel to games.

Catering to all needs

As well as ensuring physical access, venues also need to consider the access needs of fans who are neurodiverse or have intellectual or learning disabilities.

Facilities like sensory viewing rooms can make a huge difference for fans with sensory needs.

The idea of sensory viewing rooms in sports venues was spearheaded in 2014 by Peter and Kate Shippey, whose sons, who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, wanted to watch live football.

Sensory viewing rooms are spaces for fans to watch matches without the potential sensory overload that comes from sitting in a crowded, noisy stadium. Rooms are soundproofed and often have a direct view of the pitch.

Sunderland AFC became the first club in the world to open a sensory viewing room in 2014, and The Shippey Campaign now advocates for clubs to include sensory viewing rooms for fans.

In the years since, clubs including Watford FC, Notts County and Middlesbrough have all opened similar facilities. Since Watford opened its room in 2017, over 60 families have used the facilities.

Level Playing Field have found that an increasing percentage of fans now consider themselves to be neurodivergent – 16% of respondents to their 2023 survey identified themselves in this way.

This means that, as well as physical access, provisions like sensory rooms may be increasingly important for sports venues, as well as for major tournaments.

Two years ago, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar claimed that it had overseen ‘the largest deployment of sensory rooms at a mega sporting event in history’.

Addressing prejudice

Creating accessible venues also goes beyond facilities and physical provisions. Clear communication and raising awareness are also important.

The 2023 Level Playing Field Survey found that over 25% of disabled sports fans said that ‘the attitudes of others’ are a barrier when attending live sport.

CAFE has argued that disability and access awareness training for staff and stewards is crucial for making sure that disabled fans feel welcome at live events.

At the same time, Disabled Supporters’ Organisations can play an important role in creating stronger relationships between disabled fans and their clubs. Sports venues and organisations increasingly employ Disability Liaison or Access Officers to improve communication.

Despite efforts to improve social inclusion, including through sustainability strategies, prejudice and lack of awareness are still major obstacles for disabled fans. As The Guardian reported last year, disabled fans continue to face derogatory language and a lack of understanding among other supporters.

Major events and accessibility

While guidance for improving accessibility has been available for clubs and organisations for a long time, there are clearly still many major roadblocks to overcome.

With so many major live sports events on the horizon this year, how do these high-profile tournaments plan to address accessibility?

Organisers of this year’s Olympic Games in Paris have provided accessibility guidance on their website, which includes details on travel to venues and transfer services. The Games will also provide an audio description service on its Games app.

Meanwhile, UEFA has published guidance on the accessibility for each of the venues for this summer’s Euro 2024 tournament, and audio-descriptive commentary will also be available at each match.

These events follow last year’s Rugby World Cup, also held in France, which reserved 1% of ticket sales for people with disabilities, including discounted tickets for carers and companions.

It’s clear that more and more events are taking accessibility seriously, and there are some positive examples in major leagues across the world.

Premier League football club Arsenal recently became the first club to provide a permanent British Sign Language service at the pitch side, while FC Porto recently announced the launch of a new sensory room at its Dragão stadium.

But tying accessibility into broader sustainability strategies will be one way that clubs and venues can make sure that the needs of disabled fans are meaningfully addressed.

As this year’s Unite For Access campaign takes place over the next two weeks, clubs and venues across the world have an opportunity to make sure that accessibility becomes fully integrated into sports’ understanding of sustainability – so that no fan is left behind.

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