Disabled fans “betrayed” by Premier League Clubs
The Premier League has been accused of 'betraying' their disabled fans after around a third of clubs were found to have broken a collective promise to meet minimum standards by 2017.
Under the threat of both legal action and legislation, the 20 clubs announced in 2015 that, within two years, they would all finally meet guidelines which were laid out by the Accessible Stadia Guide of 2003.
It had followed a Telegraph investigation which revealed that only three clubs were compliant.
Penny Mordaunt, now the Leader of the House of Commons, had previously described the situation as “completely unacceptable” and promised that the government would support the Equality and Human Rights Commission “to ensure that the law is enforced and that these clubs meet their legal, and moral, obligations”.
Clubs are required by the 2010 Equality Act to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure disabled fans are not discriminated against.
Seven years on from the pledge - and after further broadcast revenue in excess of £15 billion - a new investigation has found that 11 of the 32 clubs who have been in the Premier League since 2015 do not comply with the ASG’s recommended number of wheelchair spaces.
An audit by the EHRC in 2015 estimated that clubs could collectively make the necessary adjustments for as little as £7.2 million in their most basic form and £30 million for more comprehensive solutions. The Premier League, whose net transfer spend in last summer’s transfer window exceeded £1 billion, says that clubs have invested more than £125 million since 2015 in improving supporter accessibility.
The revelations come at a particularly delicate moment following the appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister and Premier League opposition to English football’s first independent regulator. One of the key arguments in favour of regulation is that the clubs and leagues are so riven with self-interest that they are incapable of effective self-governance.
The Premier League’s rule book, which requires two-thirds of clubs to agree any change, is seen by disability campaigners as grossly ineffective. In it, there are 11 vague words that relate to “sufficient and adequate” facilities for disabled supporters under rule K.34.
Stadium requirements in other areas are outlined in far greater detail, including 28 lines about giant screens, three pages on floodlights and even 14 lines about the working conditions of the away club’s video analyst.
Although the Premier League stressed that money is not the limiting factor, an official at one club privately described the introduction of additional wheelchair space as “seat kill”. A wheelchair bay with room for a carer generally requires the same space as nine regular seats.
A source at another club admitted that the issue simply needed to be addressed in the rule book. “It’s harder to make the internal case for changes that cost a few million if it has not been mandated,” said the source, who suggested that the Premier League could withhold broadcast income for non-compliance.
Manchester United were among those clubs threatened previously with legal action who now fully comply with the ASG. Chas Banks, the chair of the Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association, said that the work cost less than an average Premier League left-back.
Banks said that he felt deceived by the wider lack of compliance. Asked if it was “a bit of a betrayal”, he said: “It’s a lot of a betrayal. Massive. It doesn’t follow the actuality of the guide, let alone the spirit. But they get away with it. They know that they are dealing with a captive audience and, if one fan stops going, another will take their place.
“Your average disabled person is astonishingly passive. They suck it up. But why doesn't the Premier League put their foot down and do something? “
David Butler, the outgoing chair of the Premier League’s Disability Advisory Group, now wants the EHRC to relaunch their investigation and said that it would be “unconscionable” if they turned away from the issue.
Butler is also concerned that the advisory group, which has a representative from each club, has been paused in its current form subject to a review of the Premier League’s wider equality, diversity and inclusion strategy.
“There is a great disappointment,” said Butler. “There are dozens of pages in the Premier League rule book about broadcasting and TV - where the money comes from - and they have to make the changes to the stadium instantly. If the clubs get that wrong, they are fined. It should be exactly the same for the disabled community.
“A number of clubs have met all these requirements and put action in place. We are delighted that they have done so. But, if a small club like Watford can be compliant in a 100-year-old stadium, there is no excuse elsewhere.”
A Premier League spokesperson said that the club were still “committed to meeting the Accessible Stadia Guidelines” and emphasised the “substantial” work that had been taken to improve access. This significant improvement is acknowledged by the EHRC as well as campaigners. “All clubs are currently compiling detailed ASG returns for the Premier League in order that we can update records and identify completed works, areas of improvement or issues where progress remains outstanding,” said the Premier League spokesperson. After first making the pledge in 2015, the league subsequently also announced that newly promoted clubs - such as Nottingham Forest this season - would have two years to make the adjustments.
"We won but I didn't enjoy a single thing about the game"
Threats, abuse and missiles are part of the match-day experiences for disabled fans in the Premier League
When the Premier League made a joint commitment in 2015 to achieve minimum standards for disabled supporters, one of five specific pledges related to the positioning of away fans. “All clubs to ensure the appropriate number of wheelchair bays are located in their away section,” it said.
This was in direct response to some clubs placing away disabled fans in the same stand as home fans. And yet here are excerpts from an email dated February 16, 2021 from a police officer working in the Trinity Stand of Villa Park where away disabled supporters were being placed with home fans:
“Issues have got to a point whereby on matchdays extra officers are now deployed to this area to support the stewarding operation (and help) away disabled fans to feel safe whilst attending fixtures at Villa Park,” it said.
“Awful” experiences detailed in the police report included away disabled fans being threatened by home fans while simply waiting for disabled toilets to become available; away disabled fans having missiles thrown at them, including coins and beverages, while in the designated away disabled fan; and fans being verbally abused and threatened by home fans when celebrating their team’s success.
Some disabled fans vowed never to return to Villa Park. Others campaigned tirelessly for change and, while a new space for wheelchair spaces in the away area did appear earlier this year, others are now placed in what is understood to be a disused television studio.
Amy Wilson, an Everton fan who was born with the bone condition osteogenesis imperfecta, recalled previously watching Everton win at Villa Park but “hating” what should have been the highlight of her week.
“It’s the only ground where I have really experienced fan reaction,” she said. “It was horrible. We won the game, but I didn't enjoy a single thing. We scored and I didn't celebrate. We had fans saying, ‘You shouldn’t be here, you should be over there’. My reaction was, ‘We would love to be over there, but it’s your club that is preventing us’.”
Wilson, who is also an officer of the Centre for Access to Football in Europe, had to be persuaded to return to Villa Park and this season was the first that she has been able to sit with other Everton fans. She says that there were seven new wheelchair spaces in the away end, with a further six wheelchair fans given a separate space in a sound-proof television studio. “One said it felt like a cinema experience - not a match - and he couldn't hear the away fans singing”, said Wilson, who stressed that, for many disabled fans, football was their one accessible activity that was not some sort of medical appointment. “It can be life changing,” she said.
David Butler, a 78-year-old amputee who has been the chair of the Premier League Disability Advisory Group since 2017, says that he has also been “deluged” with stories of bad experiences at Selhurst Park.
The sightlines, and the problem of away fans standing in front of disabled supporters, is one recurring complaint that Palace have been trying to address so that the wheelchair users on platforms are not impeded by away fans who stand in front of them.
“Palace is a nightmare to get to - and then you can barely see the game,” said Chas Banks, the secretary of the Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association, who said that a wider deterioration of fan behaviour at away games was “putting the safety of disabled fans at significant risk”.
Palace are planning major improvements to their disabled facilities when they redevelop their Main Stand and say that they have never had full demand for all their wheelchair spaces. Campaigners point out that the ‘supply/demand’ argument may simply be a reflection of what is on offer and how proactively clubs try to recruit disabled fans. “I know a disabled fan this season who was not going to Leeds because she doesn't think she is going to be able to see and was not going to Villa in case she ends up in the television box,” says Wilson.
In a survey for the charity Level Playing Field, almost half of disabled fans said that “poor views” were a barrier to attending matches. A similar number experienced some form of abuse or negative attitude at an away game in the last five years and the number of sports fans who described the “attitude of others” as a barrier to attending live sport had almost doubled in the last year to 28.5%. More than a third of disabled fans also said that they cannot attend live sport due to issues of accessibility.
Joanne Mckibbens, the chair of the Aston Villa Disabled Supporters’ Association, was knocked off his scooter when her sister was injured during a crowd surge at Norwich City in 2019 where disabled fans were positioned at the front of an able-bodied stand of away supporters.
Protective barriers are now in place following reports of other disabled fans being knocked over during goal celebrations. Mckibben urged clubs to consult with disabled fans to understand their lived experiences. “Don’t just make the changes - ask the actual people,” she said. “Sometimes I think we are a bit of an inconvenience, but we don’t choose to be disabled and, for many, football is their lifeline. It’s the highlight of the week - the time when they get to see their friends and can spend some time outside. We just want a decent experience.”
Clubs not meeting Accessible Stadia Guide numbers for wheelchair spaces:
Current Premier League
Aston Villa: Recommended wheelchair bays 216 Actual 90-94
The club have had plans approved to increase the stadium capacity to above 50,000 which is expected to improve disabled facilities
Crystal Palace: Recommended 165 Actual 128
The club believes it is in line with criteria due to stadium age and restrictions on development but does plan to improve wheelchair provision as part of the Main Stand redevelopment
Fulham: Recommended 165 Actual 86
The club is carrying out work to the Upper Tier of the Riverside Stand that will add further wheelchair spaces
Leeds United: Recommended 201 Actual 177
Concerns have also been raised about obstructed views for wheelchair users due to insufficiently elevated platforms behind standing away fans
Nottingham Forest: Recommended 180 Actual 74
The Premier League have announced a two-year grace period for promoted teams in 2016. Forest are in their first year back in the top-flight and have planning permission to upgrade the stadium and improve disabled facilities
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Recommended 184 Actual 144
The club have increased their wheelchair spaces and wider disabled facilities and have further work planned
Clubs not meeting numbers who have been relegated since 2015 pledge was made:
Hull City: Recommended 165 Actual 133-149
Hull have only once had an attendance above 20,000 following their solitary season in the Premier League since the pledge and say that their wheelchair capacity currently exceeds demand
Norwich City: Recommended 171 Actual 84-86
Norwich are examining the potential redevelopment of Carrow Road’s City Stand, with accessible platforms and wheelchair access part of these plans
Sheffield United: Recommended 186 Actual 77
Spent two seasons in the Premier League since the 2015 pledge and, according to both Level Playing Field the Premier League’s Disability Advisory Group, have less than half the recommended wheelchair bays
Sunderland: Recommended 216 Actual 208
Relegated in 2017 - Sunderland’s 49,000 capacity stadium has not sold out in the Championship this season and neither have the 208 wheelchair bays
Swansea City: Recommended 153 Actual 136
The club have dipped just under the recommended number since being relegated but do meet guidance for ambulant spaces
• Figures from Premier League Disability Advisory Group / Level Playing Field / Telegraph Investigation