Media and Communications Manager Michael Rice is celebrating his ten year anniversary of working with CAFE, and we spoke with him about highlights, challenges and goals for the future.


How did you come to join the CAFE team?

I graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Law degree in 2011 and had already decided whilst studying that my passion of justice and equality would be best served outside of the legal sector. During my final year of studies I began to work with a Premier League club’s academy, and as a huge sports fan I sought further opportunities to work within the industry.

I actually applied for a part-time role with our partners and friends at Level Playing Field, and was told at my interview of another part-time opportunity with CAFE. I was lucky enough to be offered both roles, and after a few months of working for both organisations concurrently I moved full time to the CAFE team.


What was your motivation for joining CAFE?

I have always been someone who believes in doing the right thing, and in fighting all forms of discrimination. I had also spent a year at university studying the recently-enacted Equality Act in UK law, and finding out more about the legal battles that many disabled people had fought for years to have their rights recognised and protected. I had witnessed some of the barriers faced by disabled relatives, and once I became aware of CAFE and its works it just felt like the perfect fit.


What do you remember about your first few days at CAFE?

I came in just a few weeks before our first International Conference at Wembley Stadium. We had a team of four at the time – two of us in the office and two working remotely in Eastern and Western Europe. We had a lot of planning and preparation to do, and not much time to do it in, but we hosted a fantastic event and it was great for me to meet so many of our friends, partners and stakeholders so soon after joining CAFE.


What have been some of your stand-out memories or moments from the last 10 years?

Our first major tournament, UEFA EURO 2012, was an incredible experience and we achieved so much in Poland and Ukraine. The EUROs had an amazing impact not only on football fans, but on disabled people in the wider society. When we first started our works there, we were told that only a handful of disabled fans were able to attend live matches. The legacy of that competition is that that number has risen immeasurably, with so many more disabled fans able to take their rightful places inside the stadiums.

I also had the opportunity to travel out to Brazil for part of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, where we implemented audio-descriptive commentary for the first time. Our training seminar was held in the iconic Maracana, and I will never forget the feeling of excitement when the stadium came into view as we first approached it. I had never attended a major international tournament before, and the atmosphere was unbelievable.

Two of our major projects I have taken a lead on have been the CAFE Week of Action and our works around audio-descriptive commentary (ADC).

Watching the Week of Action grow has been so wonderful to see, and colleagues around the world have shown their support for #TotalAccess. As a direct result of the campaign, disabled fans across the globe have benefitted from improved facilities, inclusive services and initiatives strengthening their relationships with their clubs. The CAFE Week of Action gives stakeholders the opportunity to show how valued their disabled fans are, and to provide this opportunity has been truly humbling.

The development of ADC is something I am hugely proud of. ADC can literally be the difference between a partially sighted or blind fan attending a match or staying at home. I will never forget the words of one of our long-term partially-sighted partners. She said she saw matches in black and white, but with ADC she saw a rainbow. It is these real-life experiences that remind you of the impact your works are having for so many people.

I’ve been fortunate to work on many tournaments and Finals, and for a lifelong fan there really is nothing better. Through my position at CAFE I’ve travelled to 25 countries, attended UEFA Champions League Finals and met some of the most extraordinary people I could ever wish to.

On a personal level, one story that will always stick with me is a blog piece I published on World Mental Health Day 2019. I had lost a good friend to mental health earlier that year, and it took me a long time to come to terms with what had happened. I wrote the blog as a personal piece for myself as much as anything, but I received an outpouring of support on social media and so many other people felt empowered to share their own stories on this topic. I will never forget the response to that story, and if it helped one person to speak about their worries and concerns then I am hugely proud to have published it.


Has the level of accessibility across European football improved as much as you would have liked?

It is important to have perspective when considering the journey we have been on. The landscape now, in terms of accessible facilities and services, is vastly different to how things looked back in 2011. That being said, I know there is still so much work to do and so many more lives to change through the power of sport.

More disabled fans than ever before are now able to join their families, friends and fellow supporters inside stadiums. Not only that, but the quality of experience is improving too. However, all of us can always do more.

Accessibility can’t be fixed overnight, and inclusion is just as much about changing mindsets as changing facilities. The journey towards #TotalAccess is not a straightforward one, but looking back at where we were to where we are now I think a lot of people can be very proud of what they have achieved.

I am excited for what is still ahead of us, and for over one billion disabled people globally.


How has the narrative around disability evolved during the past ten years?

When I think back to 2011, a lot of people still saw accessibility as a charitable case rather than a human right. We were far more likely to hear a response such as “we would love to do something, but…” and I think some stakeholders were so worried about doing the wrong thing that they ended up doing nothing.

There was a lot of erroneous information out in the public domain, that old stadiums can’t be renovated and that an entire stadium rebuild would be needed to improve accessibility, and it just isn’t the case. An open mind is the most important attribute of all, and many stadiums have shown that small changes can make a huge difference.

I read a disabled journalist say recently that disability is “the forgotten diversity”, and I think that there is some truth to this. Disability hate incidents and abuse are still far too common, but they sometimes don’t receive the same level of mainstream attention. As I mentioned earlier, changing mindsets really is the key and the wider society is starting to understand more about accessibility and inclusion. We still have much work to do to ensure disabled people have equal opportunities, but there has been significant progress over the past decade.


How do you see the next 5-10 years?

I think we will continue to see huge changes during the next decade. More and more people are understanding that society as a whole can do more, and seeing the benefits that access improvements can have for everybody. There are more disabled people alive today than ever before – they all have families and friends who can all see the limitations that society imposes on them.

The return to live stadiums from pandemic restrictions gives sport a unique opportunity to improve the experiences of disabled people. It simply isn’t good enough to label all disabled people as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘high-risk’ – disabled people need to be afforded the same rights, opportunities and choices as everybody else.

It is simply the right thing to do, and my main hope is that we can eradicate all forms of discrimination and abuse. It won’t be an easy thing to do, but if we can all continue to do our bit and change the mindsets of others, there is surely a more accessible, inclusive and welcoming society ahead for all of us.

In terms of CAFE’s works, I am really excited to further develop our works on a global scale. We have seen huge strides forwards in European football, but now is the time for other sports and other parts of the world to utilise the unique power of live sport and change the lives of many disabled people. I have been grateful to work for two pioneers at CAFE in Joyce Cook and Joanna Deagle, who have both educated me, supported me, inspired me and given me every opportunity to flourish. I have also been lucky to work with so many extraordinary colleagues, and I am sure we will continue to grow and develop our works.

Outside of the CAFE team, it has been a pleasure to meet so many committed, motivated and passionate people who work to improve the situation for themselves and others. You really are the true heroes, and it has been my pleasure to go on this journey with you. I would also like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the heroes we have lost on the way, and in particular my friend and colleague Gary Deards. Gary took me under his wing from my very first day, and I was so motivated by his refusal to accept anything other than what was fair and just. I hope that we can continue Gary's legacy and make him proud.

I have been hugely fortunate to play my part for the past ten years, and I can’t wait to see where we have come in another ten years.

Published 30/8/2021