As part of our World Hearing Day celebrations, we caught up with Thomas Fulton (TF), Head of Stadium Technology and Jason Browning (JB), newly appointed Disability Access Officer, of the Irish Football Association, to discuss the sign language interpretation offering at Windsor Park.

Why did the national association decide to start offering a sign language interpretation at Northern Ireland home matches?

TF: "It was quite a personal thing to be truthful. As IFA staff, we receive tickets for family members for some games played at Windsor Park. My father-in-law who is deaf will often go to matches and we would often sign messages to him during the match, things like substitution for Northern Ireland or the injury time announcement as he would ask what is going on when there was a break in play. Things that non-deaf fans would know about by hearing the public address announcements.

"As head of stadium technology, I was in the process of installing a new giant screen at the stadium ahead of the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship and we started thinking internally about how we could utilise this to help make the matchday experience better for deaf and hard of hearing fans.

"We spoke to a friend of the family, Trevor McCormick, who was a part of the Ireland team that played in the 2019 European Deaf Football Championships and invited him to the stadium to record some signed messages to play on the newly installed giant screen and that’s really how it all came about."

How has the sign language interpretation service been received among your deaf and hard of hearing supporters, the wider deaf community and general public in Northern Ireland?

TF: "I’d say we are now much more aware of how many deaf and hard of hearing fans we have attending our matches, which we really didn’t know about prior to this. We have received emails from fans thanking us for having this in place at the stadium.

"One stand out email came from a grandfather, whose young granddaughter is deaf. She was thrilled to be able to know who had scored because it was shown on the big screen and she didn’t need to ask her family to tell her if she hasn’t been able to see the goal clearly. Getting emails like that makes it all worth it. We have also received nice comments from fans on Twitter when we posted anything about the service.

We want Windsor Park and the IFA setting the benchmark for what inclusive venues should be, if we can do that, other venues not just footballing ones here in Northern Ireland will hopefully look to follow. We’ve had conversions with the SSE Arena here in Belfast about our sign language service and we have advised how it could be implemented at their multi-purpose arena.

How did you implement the service? And did you encounter any difficulties in setting the service up?

TF: "We get Trevor, up to the stadium ahead of matches, kit him out with the famous green shirt, scarf etc and record him signing the messages that are needed. Trevor is a big Northern Ireland fan himself, so he is delighted to do this role for us.

"Then it is just a case of scheduling these into the pre-match screen content for the welcome message and national anthems message and ensuring the substitution announcement is in place to appear alongside the visual announcement on the screen too.

"The pre-match content does not impact with any sponsor advertisements or other commercial activities, so there hasn’t been any real issues at all with the service. We started the service during 2018 and it’s just grown from there."

Which aspects of the matchday are now signed by the interpreters?

JB: "We have welcome messages and then Trevor appears on the big screen to sign the starting line up for Northern Ireland is and then the players are shown on the screen, he will appear again on the screen signing the starting line up for whoever we are playing and again the players names then appear on the screen."

TF: "For things like team news, substitutions, and injury time announcements it is a more a case of alerting supporters to look at the big screen for visual announcements as we can’t pre-record these announcements ahead of matches. We have pre-recorded welcome messages and thank you for coming to the match messages which we show, as well the indication of the national anthems message.

"We also have sign language interpretation videos to use in the event of an emergency evacuation."

Has having the service resulted in an increased number of disabled fans attending your matches?

TF: "I wouldn’t say more at the moment, purely because Northern Ireland games are often sold out to long-term ticket holders who block book tickets for a whole qualifying campaign for the World Cup or European Championships, so it is not always possible for new fans to get tickets to our matches very easily. But we are definitely aware that more of our regular match-goers are deaf or have some level of hearing loss because of feedback we have received."

Are there any other services in place on matchdays at Windsor Park to enhance the matchday experience of deaf and hard of hearing fans?

TF: "All content on the big screen pre-match and at half time are provided with captions now. As mentioned earlier, emergency evacuation information is provided in different formats. There are flashing lights in accessible toilets to alert a deaf or hard of hearing person if an evacuation is taking place."

JB: "We have hearing loops (assistive listening devices) at the main reception at the stadium, and at the ticket office.

Was implementing the sign language service at Windsor Park costly and time consuming to implement?

TF: "In terms of outlay, there could be costs incurred for installing a big screen to relay message in alternative formats and of course it may not be possible to have big screens at all venues, certainly here in Northern Ireland.

"However, where it may not be possible to implement a sign language service straight away, there are always small wins that clubs can do to help fans who have hearing loss. Captioning content on social media and websites is not hard to do.

"Improving the education of stewards including different ways communicating with fans – writing down information or signing for example. It’s small things, that help to make a big difference to the enjoyment of a match."

What advice and guidance would you give to clubs and national associations across Europe and beyond who are considering implementing a sign language interpretation services at the stadiums?

TF: "Speak with your deaf and hard of hearing fans, find out from them what they’d like to see in place that would help them enjoy a match at the stadium even more. Ask them what types of information they would like to have signed i.e. purely just matchday information or would they like to have information about offers at the food and drinks areas available so they know what they could purchase in advance.

"Don’t just presume you know, speaking with the fans and this goes for all fans not just disabled fans, will help ensure you as club or national association are making correct decisions."

JB: "Feedback from users of the service is essential. It may not all be possible to install or put in place, but listening to what services users, in this case, deaf and hard of hearing fans would like is key to making an inclusive matchday experience."

Why do you feel it is important to offer additional services for all disabled supporters at Northern Ireland national team matches?

TF: "The honest answer, all fans are equal and should be treated as such. We want all our fans to come to our stadium and have the best experience. So, if we can help disabled supporters to do that by having additional services in place, whether it sign language, audio descriptive commentary, priority access to the lifts and that makes their matchday better and more enjoyable then that is what we’ll do.

"By having additional services, we also hope to inspire other clubs and other non-sporting venues to do the same so more disabled people can have an equal and enjoyable experience in other areas of society, such as the theatre or the arts."

JB: "For me, I think it’s the IFA’s responsibility to offer the best-in-class services and facilities to all fans as we are there to provide a service to them. It doesn’t matter if you are disabled or not, all fans coming to matches should have the best experience we can possibly provide.

"Disabled fans do need to have additional services and facilities to ensure they are getting the best experience and if we didn’t offer these, our disabled fans would not be getting an equal experience when coming to Northern Ireland matches."

For further information on inclusive services such as sign language interpretation and for advice on how to implement them at your stadiums and clubs, please contact us at [email protected].

Published 03/03/21