Getting fans back to football is about so much more than ‘Pukka Pies’ and a pint, whilst we have been able to enjoy sport on television nothing beats the match day live experience.
Many football fans have realised for the first time what it feels like to be unable to experience their favourite team playing week in and week out. Lockdown has proved an insurmountable barrier to getting bums on seats in stadiums, but for many fans on the autism spectrum or with special needs, access to the ‘real thing’ has always been about overcoming barriers.
An accessible society isn’t one that exists with silos of good practice, putting on an accessible event won’t work without accessible facilities and accessible facilities won’t work if public transport isn’t accessible.
Pre-pandemic, Autism in Museums went to visit two of London’s top football clubs to see how their efforts to welcome disabled visitors have been making a huge difference to fans and providing special memories that last a lifetime.
The Shippey Campaign have been spearheading this work with the first football sensory room opening at Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light in 2015.
In 2016 the Premier League teamed up with BT, The Shippey Campaign and The Lord’s Taverners, a disability sports charity to fund sensory rooms across 20 top flight clubs.
In July 2019 Autism in Museums (AiM) got a tour of the Chelsea Football Club’s Sensory Room with Andy Rose, Disability and Inclusion Officer from the Chelsea FC Foundation. Opened in May 2018 the room overs a safe and secure space to watch the match as well as a connected calming sensory space to help provide an environment for families to enjoy the match day experience together.
Sound, light and temperature can all be controlled to suit an individuals needs, with a disabled toilet, sink and fridge all available specifically for visitors to the sensory room. The stadium also has a Changing Places toilet nearby.
Andy tells me the restricted view works well as visitors can often get overwhelmed by the crowds but limiting sight lines allows fans to focus on the action on the pitch.
Comfy ‘football’ designed bean bags provide a relaxing place to sit and chill out. Tactile toys including a football boot are great additions for children who need to seek out extra sensory information to understand their environment. There is the flexibility to see the game on screen or take some time in the sensory space with bubble tubes, soft play mats and audio visual technology offering options for play which can be a great distraction if a visitor is anxious.
Andy tells me it is all about a holistic approach to providing an accessible experience, families can visit up to 2 hours before a game or leave up to 2 hours after so they can miss the crowds. Staff have all received autism and disability awareness training and there is even the option to order food using the Chelsea FC app so families don’t have to feel overwhelmed at busy times.
There is no age limit on the room and autistic adults can use it too. Andy explains that they tend to keep mid-week games that finish later for adults with families and young children booking in at weekends.
Fans have booked from as far away as Birmingham and even Belfast to experience something that they never thought they would be able to. For some families building up exposure in a controlled way has led to some being able to transition into the stadium and the experience has become more familiar.
In January 2020, just before the pandemic began, AiM visited the Emirates Stadium to see Arsenal Football Club’s Sensory Room. Samir Singh who works in their Community Department started with a tour of the stadium and a chance to see the changing rooms and stand pitch side.
Samir talked me through the community and outreach work the club does, they have close relationships with the neighbouring boroughs of Islington, Camden and Hackney. Arsenal have a separate sound proofed viewing area and sensory room opened in 2017. This works really well for those who get overwhelmed with noise. On my visit the viewing area was cleared to record the FA Cup Draw, the flexibility of the space means it can easily be set up for visitors and Samir showed me some of the tactile resources that are used on match day.
The sensory room is a separate area with soft play equipment, sensory toys and state of the art audio visual equipment which allows families to take time out.
During the week the room is available for local groups to use. This community focussed approach makes a huge difference to autistic people living near the stadium and provides facilities that aren’t easily found elsewhere in the borough.
Every Friday (pre-Covid) St John’s Upper Holloway School bring some of their SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) pupils to have time to play and experience the sensory toys. On my visit I had a chance to chat to the teaching assistants about how important this time is for the children and the impact on the children of having a well resourced dedicated space which the school can’t afford. It is also clear how important this work is and how embedded Arsenal are in their community.
Arsenal also have a Changing Places toilet and a disabled supporters match day lounge for fans to relax before a game.
You can find out more about the Chelsea Sensory Room in the link below. You can also contact Andy Rose Chelsea Foundation’s Senior Disability Inclusion Officer to find out more firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find out more about the Arsenal Sensory Room in the link below. To find out more please contact email@example.com
You can find out more about The Shippey Campaign here – https://theshippeycampaign.com/