The CAFE team spoke to Alina Novozhilova to find out more about her experiences in her role as Disability Access Officer (DAO) at Zenit Saint Petersburg, one of the largest football teams in Russia.

Why is access and inclusion so important at your stadium?

Zenit is a big club, and many people want to visit the stadium. However, the size of the stadium means it can often be difficult for disabled fans who are visiting for the first time to be able to navigate.

We need to improve this, as everyone has the right to be able to enjoy the match at the stadium rather than watching it on TV.

How can a DAO help improve access and inclusion?

A DAO can tell disabled fans how to get to the stadium, how to get tickets, what services the stadium offers, and can liaise with others to help meet certain requirements.  In preparation for a match day I also organise shuttle timetables and parking permits.

During my time as DAO, I have increased the number of spaces for wheelchair users. We had to organise all of this, from documentation to buying additional companion seats.

What problems have you faced as DAO?

There have not been any huge problems. Sometimes there are small issues, like a broken elevator, not enough parking, or a blocked road.

What initiatives have you been part of during your time as DAO, and what else do you have planned?

We introduced electronic tickets, which means fans can pass through any gate. It also means if someone cannot make a match, their ticket can be given to someone else. The feedback for this initiative has been positive.

We are planning in the future to make all gates accessible, and get stewards trained in sign language to help deaf and hard of hearing fans to their seats.

We have also hugely increased the number of places for wheelchair users and have introduced audio-descriptive commentary, providing it for all matches this past season.

We would like to improve the navigation for partially sighted fans.

How do you liaise with disabled fans?

Many of our fans know me personally and will contact me through social media or by phone. I have many disabled people in my circle of contacts, which means they are able to ask me many questions they would not feel comfortable asking others.

Important information is also posted on our social media platforms and on the website.

Which other departments do you work with?

If there are problems with something like transport, for example, I can communicate directly with the relevant department. There are no problems in interacting with other departments at the club.

What has been your most memorable experience from working as a DAO so far?

My most memorable experience is actually about becoming DAO. I always used to go to the old stadium, before we moved to our current one. It only had 15 wheelchair spaces, and it was difficult to get a seat. There were so many fans that there were often no seats left. I would often go to the match without a companion, and when I was there I often struggled to access food and drink.

Eventually, I led a group of fans that went to complain to the club. In response, the club then offered me the role of DAO.

Are there plans for creating a Disabled Supporters Group (DSA) for your club?

Not yet, but CAFE have sent me their documents on this topic. I want to offer this to the fans, but for now, they have a connection with the club through me and can ask any questions that they may have in that way.

Do you have any recommendations for other DAOs?

In my opinion, it all depends on the club. Every club has different numbers of disabled fans, and each stadium has different barriers to access.

However, one recommendation I can make is that DAOs should look to build more understanding with their club’s fans and develop these relationships.

Are there benefits in exchanging information and best practices with other DAOs?

I would like to exchange information, especially with clubs with new stadiums and large numbers of fans. I want to learn more by hearing the experiences of those who have worked at these places.  

How can CAFE support you more in improving the matchday experience of disabled fans?

The question of how to create a more accessible environment, what equipment to bring in and how to make visits more comfortable for different fans is something I will focus on again each season.

I would like CAFE to help me understand the issues that I do not yet fully understand, so I can better achieve these things.