Ahead of International Women's Day 2024, CAFE spoke with women who are passionate about access and inclusion for disabled people.

Whether disabled fans themselves, or working to remove barriers affecting disabled people in sport, we sought a wide range of experiences and opinions to shine a spotlight on the topic.

Anna Rossi is a passionate disabled football fan from Italy. She is also involved in the Italian Paralympic Powerchair Sports Federation (FIPPS) which organises and coordinates the activities and the leagues of Powerchair Football as well as Powerchair Hockey, which she plays herself.

What made you want to become involved with football?

I am, in general, a sports passionate. I have always found sports, and football in particular, is a language that everyone speaks. Sports are able to unite, make people meet, and embrace a common passion.

I would say that my dad is one of the main reasons why I have always wanted to be involved in football. He was the one who showed me the magic of football. Watching Juventus matches together on TV, and sometimes going to the stadium as well, still is the best example of us spending the best quality time together.

My dad used to be involved as youth coach and manager in the local club of the village, and I used to follow him to the football field where I soon enough started to get involved in small management tasks for the teams. This included tasks like checking everyone had a clean t-shirt for the matches, that hot tea was in the locker rooms for the breaks, or helping with running the small cafeteria at the football field. It may seem quite trivial activity but, for me as a young disabled teenager, it meant a lot to feel part of a team and at the time it was the closest I would ever dream of being part of sports. 


Did you ever face any barriers as a woman wanting to become involved with football?

I think I realise this more now as I have also become an athlete myself. Quite often, women can be afraid to get involved in 'male sports' because of how they may be perceived. I have gone through similar thoughts, feeling the need to prove I could belong.

In my case, I realised later that the pressure was actually, to some extent, double. Not only am I a woman, but I am also a disabled woman. This made it so often too easy for others to say no, not possible or to not even consider me and my skills, my potential, and my passion, and underestimate me. 


Are women as valued as men in football?

I don’t think they are, and I do think there is evident proof of this, starting with the pay gap still existing between male and female athletes. Specifically in football, I think there is still too little media attention accompanied by a wrong narrative, often depicting women athletes as heroines, or as a huge surprise every time they get to the success they have worked for at least as much (if not more) as their male counterparts. So sometimes the value is only given to us if we do something out of the ordinary or unexpected, while male players are often celebrated daily for whatever they do (from getting a new haircut to getting a new sponsor etc.).

In countries like Italy, where football is part of the DNA of the country, women's football became visible only recently thanks to people like Carolina Morace, Sara Gama, and others, and still, they are not treated the same. They are not playing (with very few exceptions) in the same big stadium, not having the same media coverage or attention in sports TV programs.

For me as an athlete in Powerchair Hockey, which is a mixed sport, the pressure of having to earn your slot in the starting roster against other male players is always there, but I have to say that I have always felt included in my sport and never discriminated against on gender basis. 


Is there a particular policy, facility, or other measure in place that helps you to feel welcomed within football?

I honestly never felt left out as a supporter, even if it is true I normally go to the stadium with some male friends. I think what has been most frustrating to me in recent years is how easy it is to take things up against a women referee or official, using gender-based discriminating words.

In many sports organisations and workplaces now in Italy, there are more clear rules about diversity and inclusion promoting more fair opportunities for women to access decision-making tables, so this is a good start.


How do you feel the barriers faced by non-disabled women differ from those faced by disabled women?

Women, in general, often face discrimination based on gender stereotypes and inequalities in various aspects of life, including employment, education, and social opportunities. Similarly, disabled people encounter barriers and discrimination due to physical, sensory, cognitive, or other requirements, which can limit their access to employment, education, healthcare, and participation in society.

For disabled women, these challenges are often magnified as they confront not only gender-based discrimination but also discrimination based on their disability. The barriers faced by non-disabled women and disabled women can differ in several ways due to the intersectionality of gender and disability.

While both non-disabled and disabled women may experience gender-based discrimination, disabled women often face additional challenges related to stereotypes and biases about their abilities.

Physical barriers are very good example of a different barrier that non-disabled women do not find as a definitive obstruction to their opportunities (for example inaccessible buildings, transportation, sport facilities etc). These barriers can hinder their ability to participate fully in society, sport, education, employment, healthcare, and other services. 

Disabled women may also experience disparities in healthcare access and treatment due to both gender and disability-related factors.

Also, we may face heightened social isolation and stigma compared to non-disabled women and this can affect self-esteem, mental health, and social interactions, creating additional barriers to participation in social activities and relationships.

There is data showing that disabled women are at a higher risk of experiencing violence and abuse compared to both non-disabled women and disabled men. They may be more vulnerable due to factors such as dependence on care-givers, communication barriers, and societal attitudes that perpetuate violence against disabled people. Recognising and addressing these intersecting barriers is crucial for promoting gender equality and inclusion for all women, regardless of their disability status.


Do you think that disabled men have a different experience to disabled women?

Yes, disabled men often have a different experience compared to disabled women. While the challenges related to accessibility, inclusion in society, and all the aspects related to stereotypes and biases about individual abilities are common to both, very often it is easier to consider a disabled man more active, more independent, and able to take care of himself rather than a disabled woman. Societal norms and stereotypes about gender roles may be exacerbated when talking about disabled women. They may face expectations related to traditional care-giving roles or perceptions that they are less capable than others, which can impact their access to opportunities, resources, and support. Disabled women may encounter discrimination and barriers related to reproductive health, pregnancy, and parenthood, and misconceptions about their ability to parent. 

In my experience, it is somehow more “normal” and “accepted” for a disabled man to be in a relationship with a non-disabled partner, than for a disabled woman to have a non-disabled partner. 


What can be done to remove the barriers that prevent disabled women from football?

Ensure more equal access to basic facilities (like toilets for disabled men and women), promote more inclusive and diverse active participation, and boost media attention, raising awareness and visibility to female involvement in football in all roles (players, officials, coaches, supporters).


What advice would you give to a disabled woman who feels that she can’t become involved in football?

I will use the words of Abby Wambach's speech to Barnard graduates. “Don’t just ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” Ask yourself: “WHO do I want to be?” Because the most important thing I have learned is that what you do will never define you. Who you are always will.”

I understood quite quickly that sport was a huge part of my identity, and for so long I was convinced that I was supposed to just sit and watch it. But the first time I got onto the field I realised that was the place I belonged. Every time I get to go to a Juventus match I get to feel that this is where I want to be. So I stopped chasing appreciation and acceptance and started chasing the feelings that makes me who I am. 

Celebrating International Women's Day 2024

Joana Cal appointed to CAFE Board of Trustees

"When I started going to watch live football, it was very noticeable that disabled women did not go to matches very often"

"Female ambassadors and representation in the game really do make a difference, especially for young women"

"The only way is to love football, which unites women and men, disabled and non-disabled people"

"The truth is that football has always been a man's world, but little by little women are making inroads and taking on roles that were not so common in the past"

"There still isn’t the same acceptance for women playing or watching football"

"If it means that they have to make changes for you to be welcomed, then that can only benefit the game"

"I have always felt valued as a person, but the work that we women do needs to be defended and fought for much more than that of men"

Published 8/3/2024