Level Playing Field exists primarily to improve access to disabled sports fans to enjoy live sports. The organisation’s roots are in football but they cover all sports. Chairperson, Joyce Cook, told us about some of the current projects they’re involved in.
Lots of football clubs have been criticised recently after the BBC suggested that accessibility wasn’t up to scratch. What did you make of the story?
This isn’t a new story in any shape or form; this is something that Level Playing Field has been campaigning and working on with the football authorities for a lot of years. Of course, the Disability Discrimination Act and now the Equality Act have been around for about 20 years but there are clubs that still have a significant amount of work to do. It’s not all doom and gloom – there are some clubs that do a good job and some that do an excellent job, but when we look in the round and in particular, when we really focus in on the clubs with additional resources, then there is certainly a lot of work to be done.
How are the clubs getting away with it?
We believe that the time has come when the game has to regulate. It’s not frightened to regulate on other aspects – financial aspects such as fit and proper persons for owners and directors of clubs, so in our view, this is another law that exists in the UK that should be complied with. Level Playing Field’s been working with the Premier League and the Football League – so they’re all very clear on the guidance but unfortunately the issues still remain.
Do you have any anecdotal evidence as to how access at football grounds compares with that at other sporting stadia?
Yes, whilst there are problems across all sports I think the Olympics and Paralympics in the new venues of the Olympic Park really showed disabled people what’s possible and what good access and inclusion looks like. I think it was a ‘light bulb moment’ for a lot of disabled fans who said, ‘Well, hold on a moment here, we’ve been getting a raw deal quite clearly, for a long time’. The Rugby Football League came to us about 18 months ago and said they wanted to work with Level Playing Field to look at where their clubs were in terms of access and inclusion and then to look collectively at smart solutions and how they might make improvements.
Secretary of State for Disabled People, Rt Hon Mike Penning MP has already got involved. Is that a hopeful sign?
I’m really very pleased that Mike Penning has spoken out about it because he’s brought much needed attention to the subject. We really welcome government involvement. Helen Grant MP, Minister for Sport, Tourism and Equalities at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and Mike Penning have both shown a keen interest in what’s happening and we are very hopeful that this will lead to improvements through their meetings with the sport’s governing bodies.
What’s your essential message to the Premier League and the FA?
We’ve put a very sensible plan to the football authorities. It’s a three part plan. One; that they increase the football stadium improvement fund for a temporary period of perhaps three years so that clubs in the Football League and lower down, that may need some financial assistance, could apply for some funding for this specific subject, and that two; the clubs are given a short timeline that’s reasonable and sensible to undertake a professional access audit done by Level Playing Field or an organisation specialising in access to sports venues and that understands the issues of being a disabled sports fan, and three; football meets its own minimum standards: the Accessible Stadia was actually written by a working group consisting of the football authorities, representatives of their clubs and government and so on.
The Premier League clubs, as part of their new broadcasting deals, had to put 3D cameras in. They had to find accessible spots to put those cameras in and they did it in 10 days with no problem whatsoever, so when they need to find accessible space they can do it but it’s going to take commitment and I think now it’s going to take some regulatory pressure because unfortunately, I just don’t see that the clubs are going to do this otherwise.