Disabled sports fan in Northern Ireland venue plea


Michaela Hollywood

A disabled sports fan has said that if any paralympians were coming to Northern Ireland to perform, it is unlikely she would be able to watch them due to the poor state of most sporting arenas.


Michaela Hollywood, a 26-year-old university graduate from Co Down, made the claim just ahead of the official opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games this week.


The games open on Wednesday in Rio de Janiero, but have been beset by financial difficulties.


The Olympic Games had run in the city from August 5 to August 21.


Crossgar woman Michaela, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Ulster in PR and communication, has muscular dystrophy; a genetic condition which causes muscles to weaken.


A wheelchair-user, she currently works as a project co-ordinator for the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK.


She said that she had gone to GAA matches when she was younger, attends games of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, and has a particular passion for snooker.


However, she said that herself and others are routinely let down by the quality of disabled provision at venues.


“Some really bad experiences put me off trying to go to some events altogether,” she said.


“These days I mostly watch live games on television.”


Asked which venues she has problems with, she said: “All of them.”


However, she added that out of the whole raft of stadiums and arenas in the Province, Belfast’s SSE Arena (formerly the Odyssey) had the “highest level” of provision she can think of.


She said: “It’s kind of dehumanising that you can’t, in this day and age, you can’t enjoy a football match without worrying about access arrangements.”


She said after the 2012 London Olympic Games, “we were promised this great new era – and I don’t think we’ve seen that”.


“The money is just not there to put forward the things we need. Simple things – making sure that there’s enough space in the wheelchair areas that one wheelchair can pass another.”


Sometimes wheelchair users are separated from the main body of the crowd of spectators, or are only able to sit amongst rival fans.


When it comes to the paralympians of Rio, she said: “It’s really sad. If any of them were to play a game in Northern Ireland, I probably wouldn’t be able to watch them.


“At the end of the day, everybody – or most people – at some point are going to have some kind of temporary or permanent disability.


“They’ll break their leg or something. It [improving access] doesn’t just benefit me. It benefits all of us.”