Elena Popova is the National Disability Access Officer (DAO) Coordinator at the Russian Football Union, and previously worked as a CAFE Consultant. She spoke to the CAFE team about the important role DAOs can play in the areas of access and inclusion.

Elena lives in Moscow, and is passionate about football, especially CSKA Moscow. She became a wheelchair user aged 13, and says that football helped her socialise and became her leisure, work and life. Elena says, “I am who I am because of this amazing game.”

What was your link to the topic of access and inclusion before you started working with CAFE?

My friend, who is also a wheelchair user, decided to create a special place for disabled people where they could feel absolutely free and independent. He started a youth disability sports school in my home city, and I worked as part of a team of four  there.

How did you come to be involved with the CAFE team?

I was invited to participate in a video being made for a local TV show about how disabled fans can visit Russian stadiums. It was a popular video, and I gave an interview on the topic. This interested CAFE, who then contacted me to publish the interview on their website.

After this, we started to communicate more. I filled out feedback forms about stadiums I visited, to help them gather more information for other disabled fans. I also attended the 2015 CAFE Conference in Paris. Then, in 2017, CAFE employed me as a CAFE Consultant in Russia ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

How do you support the DAO project through your role at CAFE?

I support all of CAFE’s initiatives in Russia. My main aim is to raise awareness around access in Russian stadiums and help disabled people feel like they can go to football matches.

The DAO is a new role in Russian football. At the DAO workshops in Moscow, I talked to Russian SLOs and DAOs, and I gave examples and explained in detail why the DAO role is so important. Now many DLOs and SLOs are working together on access and inclusion, and there is an increasing awareness of this role across Russia.

What have been your major activities within the past season?

One of the most important has been the CAFE Week of Action. In 2018, over 20 Russian clubs participated and hundreds of disabled fans were involved. Many of them felt their own football dreams coming true!

For the 2019 CAFE Week of Action, the activities developed even further. 34 clubs took part, which is almost every single club in the top two leagues.

I will never forget one child’s eyes when he hugged his football idol. So many people attended matches for the first time, and got to experience the amazing power of football.

What is your link to the Russian Football Union (RFU), Russian clubs, and their DAOs?

I was employed by the RFU in 2017 to work on national team games. I research information about physical access and accessible services at stadiums, and try to create a barrier-free environment on matchdays.

The best way to get this information is to contact DAOs. I work with DAOs directly, in order to improve access and inclusion at clubs and stadiums. If we encounter any obstacles, we try to find a solution together.

How can a DAO help to improve access and inclusion?

For many years, Russia avoided talking about the needs of disabled people. Disabled people stayed at home.

Now, society has begun to talk about disability. Football is an excellent way of socialising. Through football, many disabled people come to understand they can be an important part of society and can live a full life. The DAO is a person who can and will enable this.

What are the benefits to exchanging information and best practices with other DAOs?

Russia has some very responsible DAOs who work hard and whose experiences should be shared. We can learn good things from other clubs throughout Europe, but other clubs can also learn a lot from Russian clubs too. We should look, learn, communicate, and apply examples of good practices.

What are the areas where access and inclusion need most improvement in Russian football?

All the new stadiums are ready to welcome wheelchair users. There are ramps, lifts, accessible toilets, and access to catering facilities. Even older and smaller stadiums are beginning to create seating areas for wheelchair users, which is great.

However, there are many disabled people who are not wheelchair users. We need to do better at improving access and inclusion for differently disabled people. I am happy to see that stadiums and clubs have started to provide audio-descriptive commentary (ADC) for blind and partially sighted people.

What has motivated you to look towards creating a DSA at CSKA Moscow?

As we started to share information about DSAs, some CSKA fans were the first ones to show enthusiasm. I prepared a presentation and met with the most active disabled CSKA fans.

At this meeting we decided to create a CSKA DSA. We chose the committee and arranged a meeting with CSKA’s management. We received support from them, and so our next step was to go to the Ministry of Justice to formally create the association.

We established the DSA on 19 September 2018, with the main objective of uniting members through activities aimed at creating an accessible and inclusive environment for all CSKA supporters.

What are your aims for the CSKA DSA?

A DSA is the best way to spread information about access at the stadiums. People will be able to share their experiences with each other.

It is also a platform for disabled fans to find a role and voice within the club. They will gain a new understanding of how they can be useful to their football club.

The DSA will help disabled people socialise through football, like I do, and so find their place in life.

What feedback have you received from supporters about the DSA?

Various disabled fans have offered help and asked to participate.

They like to suggest their ideas for activities. One member is in charge of our social media, and he also works as a blogger and interviewer for the DSA.

Have you seen an increase in the numbers of disabled fans attending matches in Russia?

Definitely. When I first came to CSKA’s stadium in 2005, I was the only wheelchair user. Now the average number is much higher, and for important matches you cannot even get a ticket, even if it is very cold weather!

What can FAs and leagues do to support DAOs?

In Russia, I am not sure there is much else the RFU can do to support DAOs. We have DAOs in every football club, and we have held workshops to explain their role. Now I think we just have to give them time, and we will see results. They just need to be monitored and helped if they face difficulties. Disabled fans will be the best helpers.

What has been your most memorable experience working with CAFE?

It is hard to single out one story. There are many examples of how the power of football impacts people. I remember well one young wheelchair user who accompanied Cristiano Ronaldo onto the pitch. She then made a video and shared it online. I saw it and was so inspired by her passion about this event. I then went on to meet her at a CSKA match, and interviewed her for CAFE.

It was so rewarding to work on access and inclusion at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Disabled fans were able to enjoy the Finals alongside their fellow fans, and it was the most accessible World Cup to date.

I was also incredibly proud to win two awards at the CAFE Conference in Bilbao in 2018. I received the National Association Initiative award on behalf of the Russian Football Union, and I was presented with the CAFE Special Recognition Award.

What do you like most about your role?

Results. It is a very rewarding job. You talk to people, and get to understand how important it is for them to attend live matches and feel the real, special atmosphere.

How can major football events like the 2018 FIFA World Cup help improve access and inclusion?

The organisers can show that they care about the fans. Organising access at the stadium and involving people at different events will help.

Such organisations have an enormous audience, and by promoting access and inclusion, they show that there are no differences. We are all equal. Every person can attend matches, participate in events, and work in football.

Do you have any wishes about the topics of access and inclusion in the future?

I want to see equality and respect. I would like disabled people to be able to get to the stadium, experience the game without bad sightlines and without facing discrimination, and then go home again, having had a great experience.