Double gold-medal winning Paralympian Jonnie Peacock MBE has admitted that football has a long way to come when dealing with disability issues, but insisted that the football community is making progress.
The Street Reporters Sports news gathered this week as part of a campaign headed up by Virgin Media and disability charity Scope, Peacock insisted that one of the main issues to be improved upon remains one of awareness.
Research published on Friday shows that disabled football fans feel excluded from live games, with eight out of ten who attend football stadiums across the UK saying that they have experienced some form of discrimination or other issues resulting from their disability.
As a result, the majority (62%) of these disabled fans said these experiences had stopped them from going to a live match again.
Peacock admitted: “It’s something that’s being improved upon, it’s getting better and we’ve come a way in the last 10 years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s still more than needs to be done and this campaign with Virgin, Southampton and Scope is one of those examples where they are trying to push it forward and make sure that it is something that people are starting to focus on.
“It’s an issue that’s affecting people and at the end of the day all they want to do is sit down and watch a football game, just like anybody else. They just want to enjoy it without having to worry about anything else.”
To highlight the issue and to put disabled fans at the heart of the game, the Saints will wear a special Scope-branded shirt for their home match against Manchester United on Wednesday 17 May. Virgin Media, the official shirt sponsor of Southampton FC, is removing its logo from the club’s strip to support its charity partner, Scope, in order to get behind disabled football fans.
Almost a third of disabled fans admitted to being victims of verbal abuse from other supporters at games and Peacock admitted that in many cases, such as fans with mobility issues wrongly hounded online for standing up from wheelchairs to celebrate goals, more education is needed for the average fan to understand the intricacies of various disability issues.
“Definitely,” he said. “People need to be educated on it and have the awareness of these things, and at the end of the day people don’t know about somebody’s life, they shouldn’t be judging on it because you genuinely never know what that person’s dealing with.
“Look, there may be one or two people who are perhaps fibbing about something, but I don’t believe that’s the case 99% of the time. Obviously we live in a country where people are very quick to call you up on things if they think they can judge you on something [laughs].”
Less than half of disabled fans surveyed said that their club had staff who are well trained in disabled fans’ needs, while only 42% said their club had a zero-tolerance statement on abuse, for example, which may cover the use of negative language.
Meanwhile, more than a third of disabled fans (38%) who go to matches said a lack of appropriate facilities at other stadiums stop them from going to an away game – with Peacock elaborating: “Toilets for some people can be quite tricky in some places, they can be quite a way away and it’s a bit of a farce to get to and in a busy football stadium it’s even harder.
“Even something as simple as increasing the accessibility could make a massive difference. Obviously in terms of discrimination that’s something that needs to be brought down and that’s not a problem just in football; that’s a culture at the moment that needs to be changed.”
He added: “One of the biggest things is just the awareness. Just getting people educated on the fact that there shouldn’t be any discrimination. What’s even the reason behind it? There’s so many different things around it and a great example is obviously Southampton wearing Scope on their chests thanks to Virgin, that’s a huge spotlight on that fact and they’re raising awareness of it.
“The more people know they can identify the problem and then try to create a solution and fix it. I think that it will improve, people just need to be better educated on it. They just need to let people enjoy the game.”
Asked what could improve from a participation perspective, he said: “I’ve watched things about how each club works with disability teams from that club, people like Man City who have the female, male and disability teams all at the same thing.
“I think that works really well, that’s an amazing opportunity to have disability players who are playing and training in the same place as some of the best players in the world. I love to see that, I’m really impressed by it.”