CAFE Advisory Group member Amy Wilson has posted the following blog, recounting her experience at the CAFE International Conference 2015 - Total Football Total Access - in Paris.

As a lot of people know, especially if you have had the “pleasure” of sitting by me at matches, seen me celebrating our goals or seen some of my Twitter rants, I’m passionate about Everton. However, I am also a passionate campaigner about disabled access and facilities, particularly in football grounds. As a result of this, I have come to liaise regularly over the last year or two with an organisation called Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE). CAFE works with clubs, supporters and governing bodies with one clear aim in mind – a more accessible and inclusive match day experience for all disabled supporters across Europe. These dealings have also resulted in me becoming a member of their advisory panel along with a number of other disabled supporters from all over Europe.

Ten days ago, in the impressive surroundings of the Stade de France, Paris, CAFE held their 2nd conference and I was extremely privileged to be one of the approximately 200 delegates who attended this two day event. Travelling to away games with Everton is something that has become second nature to me now, even going to Europa League games in Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, France and Ukraine, but I have never travelled abroad on my own. However, attending this conference was something that I really wanted to do and wanted to do on my own despite being able to take a companion with me if needed, so travelling unaided as it were was not going to stop me. I am determined and stubborn girl when I have my mind set on something!

Now I am not saying that this was easy for me, have you tried pushing a wheelchair with a suitcase precariously balanced on the footplates of said wheelchair around various train stations recently? But despite this and the odd hiccup along the way, including unhelpful assistance people at London Euston and a delayed Eurostar train journey due to an unexpected stop at of all places Lille, (any Evertonians reading this, will understand this reference and my annoyance at being here!) I made it to Gare du Nord in one piece and perhaps more amazingly with my suitcase still in one piece too! Here, I was very kindly (and much to my relief, as I am not sure my GCSE French would have got me from here to the hotel – “bonjour, je m’appelle Amy, quelle heure est i"?) l was met by a friend who works for CAFE and despite another slight problem with assistance off a train, a lift that wouldn’t come as nobody had switched it on and a walk to the hotel that may or may not involved us getting a tiny bit lost, I had made it to Paris!

An advisory group meeting ahead of the conference was the perfect start to the event. It gave me the chance to meet some of my fellow delegates from places such as Russia, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Scotland and the Netherlands to speak about their experiences and also how some of them have made changes either at their own club or at a national level. Listening to the achievements made by some of these delegates left me feeling overwhelmed and really excited to hear more at the conference.

The two days of the conference are best described as mind blowing. I all too often feel that I am continually complaining or moaning to my own club as well as other Premier league clubs when I raise issues such as poor access, views and facilities with them. This feeling isn’t helped by the fact I often get poor reasons or “excuses” back from clubs and rarely see changes or improvements made despite encountering the same problems for several seasons. However, here I was in a conference room full of like-minded people who not only shared but understood my frustrations, as they had often encountered them too. It was reassuring to know that I am not the only one who feels this way and not the only one who is trying to make changes.

Many people in attendance had gone above and beyond to help make disabled supporters match day experience a better one, some even helping disabled supporters have their first match day experience when they thought they’d could never to go to a match because of their disability. Others campaigning to raise funds to get better disabled viewing areas in their grounds and to make accessible family seating available.  

It was inspiring hearing from Joyce Cook, the Managing Director of CAFE, it was like she could read my mind with her thoughts on the whole match day experience for disabled supporters and how important football can be to disabled supporters. Her quote “a game of football, gave me my life back” really hit home with me as I have a similar opinion to this and have friends who do too and it shows why a high quality of access to football for all disabled supporters is so vital because of the difference it can make to peoples lives.

You couldn’t fail to be moved by presentations on how audio descriptive commentary at Euro 2012 and the World Cup in 2014 made such a difference to partially sighted and blind supporters. This was best summed up by a quote from Larissa, a partially sighted Ukrainian fan who said that, “Audio descriptive commentary made me feel equal and alongside my fellow fans” – such a powerful statement.

The Shippey campaign was another great example of improving match day experience, the hard work of Peter and Kate Shippey has seen a sensory room for supporters with autism at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light been made available. This has allowed their Sunderland-mad, 8 year old son Nathan to be able to go to the match in an environment that is safe for him and for other fans who have autistism but who still want to be able to go to the match and support their team like all other fans do. They are now campaigning to get sensory rooms installed in other football grounds and sports stadia.

Hidden disabilities such as supporters with dementia and colour blind fans were also discussed, I found the subjects both fascinating and thought provoking as I am ashamed to say, I never really thought of the needs of supporters who have these conditions. It is now clear to me that people who have hidden disabilities such as these are just as entitled to have a high quality match day experience and hopefully clubs will now start to cater for their needs.

Hearing about how important and vital pro-active disabled supporters groups are both at club and national level was of major interest to me. Surely it makes sense for clubs to hear direct from those supporters who are disabled on what clubs can do to help their disabled supporters enjoy their match day experience? DSG’s are the perfect opportunity for this, clubs needs to utilise the expertise and experience of these fans.

Listening to Michal Fitas from Klub Kibicow Niepelnosprawnych (KKN), the disabled supporters association for Slask Wroclaw, which is the biggest disabled supporters association in Poland, was amazing. He explained how they regularly have in excess of 200 disabled supporters attending home games (the majority of Premier League grounds have around half of this number attending, some even less) and how as part as the CAFE week of action held in April of this year, he was involved in helping over 1000 disabled supporters attend a game between Slask Wroclaw and Lechia Gdansk. What was even more impressive about this feat was that it was all arranged in around 3 weeks!

If these presentations weren't mind blowing enough for me, we also heard about the new UEFA Club Licensing criterion, requiring clubs to appoint a Disability Access Officer – perhaps a new job for me, I could do with a career change! How UEFA are planning on making EURO 2016 the most accessible and inclusive tournament for all disabled supporters, with increased facilities at grounds and also better infrastructure in and around the ten host cities, which is just as important to disabled fans as the stadiums themselves. Although me being me I am little doubtful over elements of this and I am thinking that I may email UEFA with my thoughts and concerns about this, this is how inspired and brave I am now feeling! 

The best bit of the conference for me came when Cathy Long, Head of Supporter Services at the Premier League was on stage discussing the pledge made by all Premier League clubs that they would meet the minimum standard of requirements as set out in the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017. I even got to ask a question, like I was going to miss this opportunity!! Even though I had to react quickly and change the question I wanted to ask as David Bernstein, CAFE chairman, actually got in with it before I did! So after an extremely quick rethink I got to ask “Given the relatively short timescales the majority of clubs have to make such massive changes in order to meet this pledge, I hope quick fixes that ultimately won’t make things any better for disabled fans won’t be made just to make sure the deadline is met?” This seemed to go down well with the panel and I was told that my point was very valid as after the Taylor Report, grounds were adapted quickly and often the needs of disabled supporters were not taken into account and this must not happen again. I may actually know what I am talking about after all and not be that professional moaner that I feel I am.

I’m a bit cynical if this pledge will be met on time as I know the large scale changes a lot of the Premier League clubs will have to make to become compliant having visited them all over the last few seasons. Nevertheless it was good to hear that at least the Premier League are aware that disabled supporters needs have been overlooked for some time and are aiming to put this right.

After being nervous about going to the conference on my own, not knowing how I would cope with travelling and generally getting around, I’m so pleased that I overcame these nerves and with a little bit of help on occasions from my friend and his colleagues, I managed to do it and I am so glad I did.

The conference was everything and more that I thought it would be. I went through a series of emotions whilst there, but the main thing it left me feeling was inspired. As Joyce Cook so eloquently said “we are football supporters, first and foremost” and as I said at the beginning of this piece, if you’ve seen me celebrate any Everton goal (which nearly everyone must have done if you watch Match of the Day!), you would know that I am an Evertonian before anything else, I am just one who happens to be disabled. This does not mean my match day experience should be any different than that of any of my friends or other supporters.

Thanks to the CAFE conference and the work they carry out and also that of Level Playing Field too, hopefully soon, all disabled supporters will be able to have a fully inclusive match day experience and will be known as just supporters because, as Joyce says, that is what we are.

Published 10/11/2015