The Northern Ireland FA have shared with CAFE the significant improvements they have made in the areas of access and inclusion during the 2018/19 season. Details of these steps towards making an international matchday accessible and inclusive to all disabled fans are hugely informative for other football associations, clubs and DAOs looking to make improvements at their own stadiums. 

The Northern Irish National Team play their home matches at The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. On matchdays at the stadium this season, messages from a sign language interpreter were displayed on the screen in British sign language. Messages included welcoming fans to the stadium and safety information about security procedures. The IFA is currently working on expanding this feature which will include additional messages detailing events during the match such as goals and substitutions. 

sign language interpreter signing

The stadium also introduced audio-descriptive commentary on matchdays, provided by Soccersight's four volunteer commentators. There are up to fifty headsets available, distributed by a member of staff. Applications for headsets can be made via an online form. 

A further matchday improvement was stewards receiving Disability Inclusion and Etiquette Training. The training helped educate matchday staff on the barriers faced by disabled people and challenged common misconceptions about disability. 

One of the FA’s most high-profile improvements was the launch of a sensory room, or ‘Quiet Room’, together with the Northern Ireland Autistic Society, located in the Grafton Family Stand. Previously an office, the space was transformed into a quiet, calm and safe space where fans can enjoy watching the match from an area that removes the noisy environment normally associated with of a large football stadium.

The room is soundproofed, and features soft floor tiles, comfortable seating, LED lighting, and sensory toys. It has an excellent view of the pitch, an accessible toilet, and access to kitchen facilities. Fans using the room can also access in-house commentary (again, delivered by the SoccerSight team).

Commentators providing audio-descriptive commentary

Following a trial period, tickets for the room are now priced using the same categorisation as other accessible tickets provided by the FA. This allows one carer a ticket free of charge, and others within the room – which has space for up to five people – pay the same price as tickets for the rest of the stand, with both adult and junior tickets available. The launch of the room has had very positive feedback from users.

Such fan feedback is crucial in making impactful matchday improvements. Following feedback from disabled fans around difficulties in reaching the stadium, the FA began offering golf-buggies on a first-come, first-served basis to those with mobility issues to the stadium from a pickup point and parking areas outside the Stadium.

Fans being transported by golf-buggy

Collaboration with experts has also been beneficial to the IFA. They increased their collaboration with disability organisations including Disability Sports NI (DSNI), National Deaf Children Society, Soccersight and the National Autistic Society. These relationships helped enhance the IFA understand the requirements of different disabilities and helped them find areas for improvement in their activities.

Outside of improvements within the stadium itself, the IFA has also worked on improving ticketing and online provisions. As well as working on an app for partially sighted and blind fans, and deaf and hard of hearing fans, the IFA have introduced a section on their website dedicated to accessibility.

Fans can now purchase accessible tickets by filling in an online form or by telephone. All essential companions are given complimentary tickets. For away fixtures, the FA asks supporters who require an accessible ticket to state their requirements during an expression of interest and following this the IFA then works with the away team to provide the necessary seating. 

A fan at the stadium

The IFA says that it is looking to build upon these matchday improvements. The IFA are always looking to better understand the needs of disabled fans and find areas for improvement in order to make a game that is accessible and inclusive to all.

For more information on the Irish FA’s work around access and inclusion, please see the links below: