To highlight the important role Disability Access Officers (DAOs) can play in improving access and inclusion within football, CAFE spoke to Pilar Castillo Cid, who has worked as the DAO at Real Betis Balompié in Spain for two years.

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

Prior to becoming DAO, I had not had any contact with the topic of accessibility in football stadiums. I have always been a woman who is very committed to the inclusion of disabled people in society, but until I began my work at Real Betis, I was not truly aware of the real problems around access and inclusion that exist.

How did you come to join the Real Betis team?

Before I began working in my role, the position of DAO, or a department dedicated exclusively to accessibility and inclusion, did not exist in the club. After several interviews, I started working in the Integral Disability Committee of Real Betis.

Why is access and inclusion so important at your stadium?

Some areas of our stadium are quite old and were built back in the 1970s and 1980s. This means accessibility is a serious problem for us. Our website is also still inaccessible.

We are working hard to improve accessibility for people with limited mobility, and in recent years there has been an increase in the number of disabled fans coming to our stadium.

We are working so that all people, regardless of whether or not they are disabled, have the right to come to our stadium to watch a live match.  

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

Our club is still quite far from totally overcoming all physical barriers and being completely inclusive. However, slowly we are working to improve this. The main problem facing wheelchair users is the inadequate sightlines on match days, due to other spectators standing up and obstructing their view. To eliminate this problem, higher platforms for wheelchair users are being created.

Blind and partially sighted people are usually seated in accessible areas with few physical barriers. We also have a team of volunteers who provide assistance.

What is your exact role as a DAO?

My role is to manage and control all aspects related to accessibility and social inclusion. I personally communicate with disabled supporters, helping to solve their problems and questions. I also liaise with partners and disability associations. I lead a group of volunteers on match days that assist disabled people in accessing the stadium.

My work is closely linked with the Social Responsibility department, in terms of creating awareness and interacting with disabled stakeholders, and with the Facilities/Infrastructure department, in terms of accessibility.

How can a DAO help improve access and inclusion?

The figure of the DAO in any sport is hugely important because unfortunately we live in a society that is not inclusive. The presence of DAOs in clubs helps the cub recognise the problems disabled people face when accessing stadiums.

DAOs serve as a link between the disabled fans and the club, so that the club can understand fan’s concerns and try to solve them.

What challenges have you faced as a DAO, and how have you addressed them?

My first challenge at the club is to solve its access issues. This is my main objective, in order to create an accessible stadium for everyone. To solve this, I am working alongside the facilities and stadium infrastructure department.

What have been your major activities relating to access and inclusion?

In the past year I have worked on creating a list of all the club’s disabled members. We have more than 1000 disabled members, and organising and updating our information on them has been a huge task that I have carried out on my own.

We have also created a team of volunteers for people with reduced mobility, to help manage our stadium’s issues with accessibility.

To better comply with regulations, our wheelchair user area has had a new ramp built to facilitate access.

Sometimes, when some of our disabled fans go on trips to away matches, we organise and manage the trips in order to help with travel and the visit. We get in touch with employees of the away club to find out about stadium access, accessible seating, and the best accommodation and transport.

What are your plans for the upcoming season?

From the moment I started working at the club, I wanted to eliminate all physical barriers and increase awareness of disability. However, this is not an easy task and you have to work hard and complete short-term projects.

We will continue to work on facilitating access and on allowing disabled people to enjoy and participate in football in order to foster social inclusion.

What feedback have you received from disabled supporters?

Most of the comments on the work I have done has been positive, as my initiatives have helped improve accessibility. However, many members are not happy because they want to see change happen faster.

How do you communicate with disabled fans and what information do you provide them with?

We have a database of all disabled members, containing all their contact details. When I joined the club, I organised meetings with them all to understand their concerns, hear their complaints, and give them information. These meetings were very good as I could hear first-hand about their experiences, which helped me organise my work.

I communicate with them when the club needs to pass on information on aspects related to all disabled fans.

Is it important to liaise with disabled fans?

In order to improve facilities, and raise awareness amongst non-disabled people about inclusion, it is very important to know the experiences and opinions of disabled people. Their view on social injustice is fundamental to building an accessible environment.

Our club does not currently have a DSA, but I have been informed that one will be created soon.

Do you work with any disability NGOs?

I work closely with many Disability NGOs on a daily basis. We collaborate with them through actions like donating sports equipment for charity auctions, or by promoting them in order to achieve greater visibility.

We have hosted sports tournaments between NGOs and our youth teams, including a futsal match involving blind players and our Real Betis futsal team.

Have you hosted any awareness days?

During the season, various activities were carried out to encourage the inclusion of disabled people at football matches. Around World Disability Day in December, we held a week-long conference at our stadium, during which various disability associations and organisations visited us.

We held exhibitions of disability sports so that people can get to know disabled athletes. This year, disabled children acted as player escorts on match days, accompanying players onto the pitch. So far, this was the most wonderful social action I have experience at Real Betis.

Do you have an inclusive employment policy and accessible workplaces at Real Betis?

Our club does not have a high number of disabled employees. However, we are proud to have begun a collaboration agreement with ONCE (the Spanish National Organisation for Blind People), which means that a disabled employee works with us. This will hopefully open a new path for inclusive work within the club.

The Member Services Office is completely accessible, and a new accessible area is being built to host the ticket offices.

Do you collaborate with the DAOs of other clubs in Spain?

When I started working as DAO, I contacted all the DAOs of the clubs in Spain. Unfortunately, the role of DAO does not exist at every club, and there is not always one person who specifically works in this area.

In general, the stadiums in Spain are not very accessible. There is a lot of work to be done so that they all comply with regulations, and so that disabled fans can enjoy matches the same as non-disabled people. In my opinion, a national DAO Committee should be created and monthly meetings held, in order to improve access and inclusion at stadiums.

What are the benefits of exchanging information and best practices with DAOs from abroad?

If all DAOs joined forces and committed themselves to creating a society where disabled people have the same rights of access in stadiums, there would be greater social awareness.

It is necessary to create campaigns and educate the public. Many people are not aware of the problems disabled people face.

Which are the major areas for improvement regarding access and inclusion in Spanish football?

The main area for improvement is the accessibility of the stadiums. There are many physical barriers that sometimes we are not aware of. There are many examples of infrastructure that do not meet regulations. Perhaps a small step is not a problem for me, but for some disabled people this can mean they cannot access their seat and so enjoy the game.

What can a FA or league do to support DAOs and disabled fans?

The leagues can raise awareness of the problems facing disabled people, and about the issues in creating accessible and inclusive stadiums. They can voice these issues to politicians and governments.

It is also important for them to ensure that the principles of access and inclusion are written into the legislation of every country. This would have an effect on the design and execution of public policies, and so have a favourable impact on respecting the rights of disabled people.