Disabled fans getting a raw deal at football matches, Sheffield campaign group says

Sheffield Wednesday supporters at Hillsborough. Picture by Steve Ellis
Sheffield Wednesday supporters at Hillsborough. Picture by Steve Ellis

Disabled supporters are routinely blocked from watching football matches because of 'inconsiderate' behaviour and inadequate facilities, a campaign group has claimed after Sheffield Wednesday fans faced problems at the club's last away game.

Chris White, chairman of SODA, the Sheffield Owls Disabled Association, spoke out following reports that wheelchair users and carers had their view of the goal obstructed by stewards who stood in front of their dedicated area at Preston North End's Deepdale stadium.

Preston said its stewards were forced to leave their seats towards the end of last Saturday's Championship match, which Wednesday lost 1-0, to deal with the threat of disorder and a pitch invasion.

But Chris, aged 63, of Burncross, whose son John, 34, has cerebral palsy, said it was 'not an isolated case', adding: "At probably 80 per cent of grounds we go to we have problems seeing. It's inconsiderate. You do feel like a second-class citizen sometimes."

The matter is likely to be pushed higher up the agenda in September, when the deadline arrives for Premier League Clubs to meet a collective pledge to meet minimum standards set out in the Accessible Stadia Guide. Earlier this month the Government accused some teams of 'failing' the disabled with their lack of suitable facilities, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission is preparing to take legal action against those with the biggest shortcomings.

Chris said the sport had made strides at newer grounds, but old stadiums were difficult to adapt.

"At Manchester United they've just taken 3,000 seats out to meet the number of wheelchair spaces you're supposed to have. At Sheffield Wednesday where would you put another 50 wheelchair spaces?"

The Owls have recently undergone a disability access audit, he continued.

"Supporters sit eight feet high at Hillsborough," said Chris. "During the match I think Sheffield Wednesday's got the best view in all of football."

A spokesman for Preston North End said: "For most of the game, the stewards were sat down, however, towards the end they stood due to the threat of disorder and pitch encroachment.

"Unfortunately the Sheffield Wednesday fans were very volatile in places, especially after the PNE goal. At each game we ask supporters not to encroach towards the pitchside hoardings as those in wheelchairs cannot see the goal.

"We try at all times to show consideration for those in wheelchairs, and for their safety more than anything, the stewards had to stand because of what was going on and the issues that were faced at that time."

Chris admitted: "The biggest problem is your own fans. How you cure that, I don't know. If everybody sat down it wouldn't be an issue. But most people still want to go and stand at a football match.

"Most grounds we can actually get into without a problem. At Preston, one side is at ground level so you go through a special gate and you're straight in. But there's usually not a lot of parking so you have to go and find a spot on the street or a car park nearby."

He praised the Level Playing Field charity, which has pressured clubs into making improvements, but remarked: "They are a massive organisation and even they are struggling to get stuff done."

SODA was formed in 2003, and now has around 80 members. Events are organised throughout the year, such as the chance to meet players, and anyone can sign up, including carers and friends.

"It gives us a bit of a voice. We've got a great relationship with the club. It's still going strong, we have a good time and it's more of a social group than anything," said Chris.

"At one time, if you saw somebody in a wheelchair you'd say hello but nobody used to talk to each other. "