CAFE interviewed Iva Cigrovskij, who shared her insights into what the role of Disability Access Officer (DAO) involves. Iva is the DAO at GNK Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia.

How did you become a DAO?

I started working at Dinamo Zagreb in 2011 as a journalist and community manager. In 2015, I was appointed as a DAO by the club, after the UEFA Executive Committee implemented the new DAO regulations. In 2016, I was promoted to the position of New Media Manager, alongside my work as a DAO.

What was your link to the topic of access and inclusion prior to becoming DAO?

I have previously been in charge of charity activities, including organising events, planning activities for disabled fans, and putting on educational activities for the local community. I was also in charge of organising corporate social responsibility activities.

Why is access and inclusion so important at your stadium?

Dinamo Zagreb is the most successful Croatian football club. We play in Maksimir Stadium, which is also the national team stadium. It is important to improve access for all disabled people, not just in order to give them a unique experience of a football game but also to make them feel equal to all other fans.

Of course, it is not just about disabled fans, it is about all disabled people, including athletes and employees.

How can a DAO help to improve access and inclusion?

A DAO needs to act as a connection between disabled fans and the people in charge of football club organisation and venue infrastructure. With a personal approach and in cooperation with the venue manager and local organisations, a DAO can help improve access and stadium facilities. They can also open the club to disabled fans by organising activities. We have many activities at the stadium and also host programmes outside the venue – visiting disabled fans in their homes, integrating disabled fans into the club, giving fans the opportunity to take the stadium tour, giving free tickets and unique experiences. 

We want to improve by working on the stadium infrastructure and opening the club to our disabled fans by organizing interesting activities every month.

Which departments do you collaborate with and how?

I work in the Public Relations Department. Communication is the most important thing, especially with other colleagues involved in related programmes, including the Ticketing department, Security department, and Supervisory Board.

Of course, the main thing is communication with disabled fans. You need to talk to them, show that you are open to them, and ask them what change they would like to see. They can help us improve stadium access and facilities.

What are the benefits in exchanging information and best practices with DAOs from other clubs?

I do not think there is one rule. Every club is different, working in unique circumstances. The best thing is to share knowledge, and good or bad examples so everyone can learn something and find the best ways to integrate projects and activities into their clubs. Talking, sharing experiences and discussing obstacles is important.

Of course, inviting disabled fans and organisations to join in is key because their feedback is the most important thing.

You do not need to compare to other clubs. The important thing is the individual progress of every club.

How do you currently exchange with DAOs from other clubs?

I learn from the DAO Handbook, and I share experiences and information with other DAOs through CAFE workshops across Europe as a guest presenter.

We do not have meetings in Croatia, but I believe we will start some kind of DAO network in the upcoming months.

How do you work with CAFE?

I have been connected with CAFE since November 2017, after the 10th EFDN Conference in Oslo. I have presented some of my club’s work and projects to Jochen (CAFE DAO Project Manager) and the club’s work was immediately recognised.

We try to follow CAFE’s good examples, informing them about our activities and sharing news and multimedia through online channels.

We have also participated in the CAFE Week of Action for a number of seasons. We provided a VIP experience for some of our learning disabled fans in 2018, and in 2019 we hosted dedicated stadium and museum tours for partially sighted and blind fans with audio and braille. CAFE supported our work, and invited me to present at DAO workshops in Russia, Ukraine and FYR Macedonia. We were also delighted to receive the Club Initiative Award at the third CAFE Conference in Bilbao in 2018.

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

In 2013, we built a platform for wheelchair users as part of the West stand. Dinamo invested its own money in the city stadium renovation.

We became the first club in Croatia to offer audio-descriptive commentary for partially sighted and blind fans, and continue to develop this service.

We started to invite more and more differently disabled fans to the stadium last season. We want to open the club to all disabled people. We are trying to give them an unforgettable experience and if we can, help them feel equal.

We will do everything to achieve that. All people should be equal and have equal opportunities.

What are your main duties as DAO?

In my DAO role, I support and advise the club about all activities with disabled people. I communicate with disabled supporters, collecting their feedback about activities, stadium access, and their match experience.

I learn from the CAFE and UEFA DAO handbook, and educate others on these.

I report to senior management, including the club’s board members, on a monthly basis and once a year through a CSR report.

What challenges have you faced as DAO?

The biggest challenge is bad stadium infrastructure, which stops you achieving everything you would like to. You cannot do a lot about stadium access when there are these physical barriers. However, you can send a report or request to institutions that can.

You can also help disabled fans to become involved through different activities. You can visit them in their homes or at associations, or invite them to join a stadium tour.

There are many activities, including low-cost ones, that you can organise in order to integrate disabled fans into the club and into the community. There should be no excuses. You must just start thinking about ideas, learn from bigger clubs, and try to adapt activities to your community and to your technical possibilities.

What do you like most about your role?

I like to see the smiles of disabled fans when they are at the stadium. They can watch their favourite players, get excited and celebrate good results, and live the experience with all other fans.

Sometimes a small step for us is a huge step for others. I think that most people are not aware of how we can change the lives of disabled people. That is the point of the DAO role, as you have the power to connect the club with disabled fans, and change their lives.

DAO’s can give disabled fans the opportunity to watch the game live at the stadium for the first time. They could get lifetime memories by meeting the first team players or participating in a stadium tour.

It is up to us to integrate disabled people into the community. Our responsibility is huge, but the opportunities and potential are endless.

What initiatives have you undertaken over the past years?

We have taken part in many initiatives. These have included providing audio-descriptive commentary for blind and partially sighted fans for the first time ever in Croatia, starting in 2017. We conducted a tactile stadium tour for blind and partially sighted fans for the first time. We created a specialised page on our website that contains information for disabled fans, which was the first in Croatia.

We promoted employment of deaf and hard of hearing people with an online campaign. We made our fan shop at the stadium accessible to wheelchair users. We cooperated with the Centre for rehabilitation in Zagreb to give a unique VIP football match experience for our disabled fans. The club donated funds to AKOSI Agram, a sports club for disabled athletes, to help support their work.

We have had children with Down syndrome act as player escorts on a match day, and we have held weekly training sessions for disabled children in cooperation with the Croatian Football Federation. 

We invited Branimir Budetić, a partially sighted athlete, to join our photo campaign “Equality = The only choice” to promote diversity.

We also took part in a programme that looked to find families to home dogs that would one day become assistance dogs. Our first team players took part in a photo shoot and video campaign with the dogs and differently disabled people.

GNK Dinamo Zagreb, and our player Dani Olmo, also featured in the CAFE video for the third CAFE Conference in Bilbao.

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

We have seen the numbers of disabled fans coming to the stadium increase hugely, from 5 or 10 a few years ago to around 120 today. This has demonstrated that disabled people like sports but previously did not have the option of attending a live football game.

Many non-disabled fans have praised the club’s work, and other sports clubs are following our example. As the leading Croatian club regarding our activities with disabled fans, we encourage other club to follow our example. The Croatian Football Federation has done so, providing audio-descriptive commentary (ADC) at a UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece. The Croatian handball association has also recently shown an interest in ADC.

What further activities do you have planned?

We have many plans for the future. Amongst these are plans for creating an educational academy for local children to teach them about equality, inclusion, anti-racism, and fair play through workshops.

We are hoping to improve stadium signage, and work on access and facilities in cooperation with the City of Zagreb and the stadium manager.

We want to improve employment opportunities for disabled people through cooperation with Association Down 21, an association for people for Down Syndrome.

We will also continue to participate in EFDN’s #Morethanfootball Action Weeks, CAFE’s Week of Action, and the FARE Action Weeks.

With the help of our major sponsor, we are looking to rent 20 tablets so that deaf and hard of hearing fans can read live textual match commentary at our games. We will also be encouraging further use of ADC.

Do you work together with any Disabled Supporters Associations (DSAs)?

We contact different disabled people associations in order to plan activities and invite fans to the stadium. Unfortunately, our disabled supporters have not yet set up a supporters association, but we are trying to help by talking with them and getting their feedback about our work.

How do you liaise with disabled fans?

We communicate with association managers via phone calls, meetings or e-mail. We invite them in advance of every home game. We provide them with all necessary information, talk about how many disabled fans will be attending, and prepare parking accreditation or anything else they need.

I welcome disabled fans before the game, and guide them to their seats. I check if everything is okay during the game, and even sometimes organise a first team player to meet them.

Do you train other departments regarding accessibility?

We still need to improve our internal communication. All departments involved in projects with disabled people are given information, but we plan in the future to have a workshop for all employees about subjects like equality, stadium access, and disabled supporters.

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

Every small story is special to me. I have met so many great people, and I have stayed in contact with many of them. I have made memories, seen smiles and happy moments. When you can surprise somebody or given someone an unforgettable experience, it is priceless.

I love to help others. The role of DAO is a unique job. You need to be in love with this job, because ultimately it is more than just a job.

What qualities should a DAO have?

DAOs should be proactive and positive people, with empathy and compassion. They should be organised, good at communicating, and have a will to learn.

Do you have any recommendations for other DAOs?

Listen to your disabled fans. Invite them to share feedback, their experiences, and ask them for solutions.

DAOs should make the first step and be proactive, that is the most important thing.

What can FAs and leagues do to support DAOs?

They can organise seasonal DAO meetings and workshops. They can make presentations in order to share experience and knowledge. They should connect clubs by inviting them to partake in more partnership activities, so that clubs that are very involved with their disabled fans can give tips to other clubs.

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

It would be great if CAFE could encourage FAs and leagues to organise meetings and workshops to give advice and technical support. Every club is unique and offers different possibilities, so together with the help of CAFE, the FAs and the leagues, we need to connect with one another in order to do better. Access and inclusion is a topic where we should forget about rivalries.