Why football grounds still need to tackle the problem of accessibility

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Alex Steward and her dad Mark in their white Derby County shirts outside Liberty Stadium in Swansea. (Photo © 2019 Alex Steward)

Derby County fan Alex Steward tells Chelsea Harper about her experience as a disabled fan, the challenges she’s faced at games and why she refuses to let the problems surrounding accessibility prevent her from watching her favourite club. 

When we go to watch our beloved team play, we never realise quite how lucky we are to do it with such ease. We can attend matches without the reliance of someone else, we can choose where we want to sit (excluding money constraints, of course) and we can opt for the safer option of watching our team besides our fellow supporters at away games.

But for Derby County fan Alex Steward, things aren’t as straightforward. Having been born with a collapsed airway, Steward was given a tracheostomy – a tube in her neck which enables her to breath. As she can often experience a shortness of breath, she is also an ambulatory wheelchair user, meaning her football experience can often be more complex. However, Steward hasn’t let her disability get in the way of her passion for the Rams and in fact, attending matches has been one of the best decisions she’s ever made.


A new pastime

“Growing up disabled you can struggle to find suitable hobbies” she admits. “Attending sporting events is something that everyone can do and something I really recommend you give a go if you find yourself with a need to get out more.”

Although her dad has always been a keen football fan, it was in fact Steward’s mum who suggested that she should start going to matches alongside him: “My dad has always watched football,” she said. “That match of the day theme tune was drilled in my head by the time I was four, but he very rarely went to any matches.”

“My disability means I can’t go out without a carer, therefore my mum thought going to football matches would be something we would both enjoy, and she was right. I didn’t think I would get as in to it as I did, but after my first match we were off to Wembley to watch that play off-final – and then got our first season tickets for the 2014/15 season.”


Home, sweet home

Since then, Steward has been following Derby up and down the country and despite encountering a few bad experiences at away grounds, Pride Park has always made her feel at home.

Talking about her experience as a disabled supporter at Derby’s home turf, Steward says she has always received a positive reception from her own club who have made her footballing experience as easy as possible. When she first decided that she was going to make regular home visits, she was introduced to all the different wheelchair spaces that were available, ranging from pitch side spaces, built platforms and spaces built within the stand – where Steward currently sits.

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Alex and her dad Mark Steward at Hull’s KCOM Stadium for an away game in January 2019. (Photo © 2019 Alex Steward)

“Derby make getting carer tickets easy too,” she confirmed. “Every year they automatically send out a form for me to fill out which just asks for an explanation of my disability and what assistance I need. This is then put on the system and I will automatically get my carers ticket when I buy any ticket that season, including away matches.”

As well as providing support for wheelchair users like Steward, they also offer hearing-looped equipped seating and matchday commentary provided by BBC Radio Derby via headsets – trying their best to accommodate for all types of disabled fans, giving their supporters the best experience possible.


Away days

However, going to away matches, as a disabled fan and wheelchair user, can be a hit or miss. Although Steward has admitted to some positive away day experiences, including her times at Old Trafford and The Hawthorns last season, not all clubs supply disabled fans with the support they truly need.

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Alex Stewart and her dad Mark Steward taking in Derby County away at Accrington Stanley for the fourth round of the FA Cup. (Photo © 2019 Alex Steward)

Steward recalls one occasion at a rival club, where she had to be escorted by a police officer through the homes supporters as there was no access for disabled fans in the away end; not exactly the type of encounter Steward had been hoping to experience in her Derby shirt.

On many occasions, there have also been times at away games where Steward has been allocated in a section of the ground away from her fellow Derby supporters completely – providing a very awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere for the duration of the match.


What can be done?

Apart from allocating disabled fans along with their fellow away supporters, Steward believes there are other improvements that could be made to help provide an overall better experience for those with disabilities.

For Steward, facilities for disabled supporters are still considered a huge issue at football grounds – with disabled toilets and lifts often being neglected.

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Alex and her dad Mark outside Wembley Stadium for Derby County’s play-off final vs Aston Villa in May 2019. (Photo © 2019 Alex Steward)

And as a lack of lifts and ramps are often the cause for disabled fans sitting apart from their supporters at away games (as they are unable to gain access to the top tier where away fans usually sit), updating and providing these facilities would solve this problem altogether.

Although Steward admits that there is still a long way to go in terms of solving the accessibility problems that surrounds getting to the games, the duration of the match is the thing that gives her a sense of freedom unlike anything else. “For 90 minutes on a Saturday myself and my Dad will be sat cheering on the Rams,” Steward said. “No thoughts about my disability, medical equipment, hospital appointments etc go into my mind – I’m fully focused on cheering my team on”.

For many of us, including Steward, football is a way to escape the complications of everyday life – proving it’s more than just a game.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter at @chelseajadeft9

All featured images @ 2019 Alex Steward. 

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