CAFE caught up with Denis Grishko, Disability Access Officer at FC Avangard Kursk in Russia, to talk about how he works to make football more accessible and inclusive.

Why are access and inclusion so important at your stadium?

Our stadium was built in 1958 and so it is quite old. However, when we carried out repairs, we took into account the wishes of our disabled fans. We have a dedicated section for our disabled fans, a toilet equipped with a ramp, and we have allocated spaces where wheelchair users can watch the match.

Our stadium offers a welcoming experience all fans, no matter who they are and no matter what disability they have.

How can a DAO help improve access and inclusion?

It can sometimes come down to how much money is available. If there are financial opportunities, you can better improve access. However, even with the limited budget of our team, we try to do as much as possible to improve the stadium infrastructure.

There are still places in the stadium where we need to add ramps to allow better access, and doorways where wheelchair users will currently need assistance.

Which departments and associations do you collaborate with?

Kursk has a Regional Organisation of Disabled People, and I communicate with the leaders of this organisation. They are always open to cooperation with our club so that people can come to the stadium to watch the matches. There are other federations in Kursk for disabled athletes, who also liaise with us.

All volunteers who assist disabled supporters on a match day are active fans of the club. They were very enthusiastic about the idea of a DAO when I started.

Is liaising with disabled fans and other DAOs important in your role?

At the moment I am the link between our active fans, and the club. The players play for the fans. A fan comes to support the players. This is an interesting interrelationship. My function is to make it all work in harmony.

I talk with DAOs at other clubs to discuss different ideas. On one social media platform we have a chat where we exchange different information and our experiences. We will share difficult problems there too and discuss best practices.

After a meeting in February, I made good contacts at Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb and Ajax. We keep in touch by e-mail, and they act as a great guide for me. We are all in different stages of development and play in different leagues, but I try to take all the best parts of what these clubs do and adapt them for our stadium.  

How does your stadium provide an inclusive experience for disabled fans?

We have a special section for partially sighted, blind, deafand hard of hearing people, located in the lower tier of the stadium. It is directly next to the football pitch for the convenience of the disabled fans.

The volunteers and I will meet disabled fans outside the stadium, and accompany them into the section on a match day.

What are your main duties as DAO?

My typical working day starts with sorting through e-mails. I do not have a set timetable, and I will do many different things throughout the day.

I have been working on organising a disability football championship for partially sighted people. I am also looking to arrange an occasion at our stadium where disabled people can come to the stadium and share their opinions on what changes they would like to see us make, in a more informal atmosphere.

What feedback have you had from disabled and non-disabled supporters?

Feedback has mostly been positive. Disabled fans always seem to be happy to come to our stadium.

Before I came to the club, there was no person dedicated to working with disabled fans. This meant many were not able to get the stadium before because of poor access. Now we have crossed this barrier together, and in the future we will make continue to make further improvements.  

During our involvement in the CAFE Week of Action we had Anatoly, a disabled supporter, help carry a banner onto the pitch with other disabled fans. He had been worried the crowd would laugh at him, but the stadium gave them a standing ovation. This shows that people are perceiving inclusion of disabled fans into the club as a positive thing.

What problems have you faced as DAO?

I had to build everything from scratch, because there was no interaction between the club and disabled fans before I took on the role.

After I attended CAFE’s DAO workshop, I was very enthusiastic and interested in making changes. I did find it very difficult though to find ways to liaise the leadership of big organisations in football. However, once we were introduced to them we slowly managed to get things done.

I also had to actively seek out many potential disabled fans myself. It was not like after one phone call all the fans came at once to the stadium. A lot of work had to be done to get to this point.

What do you like most about your role?

I like the fact we have such a good, big team, like a family, at the club. The people who sincerely care about these things are all together and working as one.

Are you working towards creating a DSA?

Unfortunately, we do not even have an official club of active fans, so creating a DSA is difficult. However, in the future, it will be necessary. There should be an organised group of disabled supporters who have their own leader and who can make suggestions to the club. This is the experience of European clubs, and we should not fall behind them.

Do you have any recommendations for other DAOs?

Do not be lazy. Be open to everyone. Allow people to reach out to you.

How can we do more to improve matchday experiences for disabled fans?

As money is hugely important, I think clubs should have a particular budget allocated according to the how much they have achieved to improve access and inclusion. If the club is trying hard, then why should it not be supported financially?