The good, bad and ugly sides of international sporting events as a wheelchair user

Paul Letters says many sporting events – in Hong Kong and elsewhere – still fail to accommodate the varying needs of people with disabilities, who should be able to sit with their families. Organisers should consider flexible seating and ticket strategies as well as access to the venues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 11:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 7:41pm

From Hong Kong’s 2017 World Track Cycling Championships through to the Ashes, which concluded in Australia this week, the more progressive practises around the world cater for spectators with a variety of physical needs. Not every wheelchair user can transfer to a seat, but many would. Not every ambulant person can manage 20 or 30 stairs, but they may well climb a couple of rows to sit with friends. A separate “wheelchair row”, isolated from other spectators, is not ideal or necessary for everyone with mobility issues.

Like anybody else, we like to feel part of the supporters rather than apart from them. Individuals need to be treated as such. Physical access within a venue and blue badge car parking are perhaps the more obvious needs, but flexible ticketing and seating strategies are also fundamental.

When attending football matches in the UK, as a blue badge holder, I can often reserve a parking space next to stadiums – or in the case of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, inside the bowels of the venue.

Can you imagine blue badge parking at an international sporting event in Hong Kong? Well, yes, actually. Perhaps not at Hong Kong or Mong Kok stadiums, but at Tseung Kwan O’s world-class velodrome, parking spaces for the disabled are readily available.

The less severe your disability, the more help you get. Go figure

The problem in Hong Kong is that to attain the blue badge in the first place, the disabled person must be the driver. Let that sink in. If your son/daughter/parent suffers from a disability that prevents them from driving, your family car will not qualify for a blue badge. I’ve taught students who are never going to be able to use their limbs to drive – so their family’s need for an accessible parking space is far greater than mine (I’m fully functional but suffer from chronic pain when walking more than a short distance). Yet they cannot park in blue badge bays, whereas I, as a disabled driver, can. The less severe your disability, the more help you get. Go figure.

Closed minds the biggest barrier for people with disabilities in Hong Kong

Football matches at Mong Kok Stadium are problematic. I’ve attended international games there with family, and no seating area could be defined as accessible: all seating is reached via a flight of steps.

Hong Kong striker Jaimes McKee interrupted his pre-match warm-up to run over and find help for me. Maybe Lionel Messi has to do the same thing at the Nou Camp, but I doubt it

The Hong Kong Football Association has boxed away the problem as “due to stadium design and limitation”. Furthermore, it was so unclear as to where a wheelchair user should park themselves that on my first visit, with the ground staff seemingly as mystified to see me (in a mobility scooter) as I was to see such little accommodation for the disabled, it was an international footballer who took the initiative. Hong Kong striker Jaimes McKee interrupted his pre-match warm-up to run over and find help for me. Maybe Lionel Messi has to do the same thing at the Nou Camp, but I doubt it.

Flexible seating can involve removable seating alongside a space for a wheelchair: if a wheelchair-bound individual has two or three family members with them, then the appropriate number of seats will be placed next to them. This is what we experienced at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in London.

Flexible seating can also mean that certain back or front row seats near a gangway are prioritised for fans with limited mobility (we made use of this at Arsenal’s stadium). If not all of those seats sell out to supporters with special needs, they can be sold to other fans. Disabled fans can mix with the able-bodied, as though we’re all part of the same species after all.

Hong Kong designer in race to find backing for wheelchair plan

For the Ashes in Perth, I was able to book seats for the whole family within a couple of rows of a thoroughfare where security staff maintained a sensibly flexible attitude as to where I could leave my scooter. Much of the WACA stadium is well-ramped, despite dating back to the 19th century.

In Hong Kong, new buildings are legally obliged to include wheelchair access but old buildings – including sports stadiums, public schools and private medical clinics – do not have to be adjusted. Well, we wouldn’t wish to inflict additional costs on property developers or a Hong Kong government that perennially suffers a budget surplus in the tens of billions of dollars, would we?

Discrimination and intolerance makes having a disability hard in Hong Kong

It was clear that the WACA’s ticketing staff are trained to be flexible over the phone, particularly regarding seating arrangements. Not so at Fifa. When I eventually spoke to their 2018 World Cup ticketing department (based in Manchester, UK), the manager displayed all the flexibility of Javert, the unforgiving and unrelenting police chief from Les Misérables.

Fifa’s website states one thing for the able-bodied – “you may apply for up to 4 Tickets per Match” – and another for those with mobility issues, where all references are to a solitary companion for whom “the exact location of the seat cannot be guaranteed”. We are a family of three, but there was no website option to request three tickets together (when one person was disabled). The only way out I could see was to designate two of us – myself and my able-bodied 8-year-old son – as disabled and then inform Fifa (which I promptly did).

The only way out I could see was to designate two of us – myself and my able-bodied 8-year-old son – as disabled

A month after debiting my bank account for the three tickets, and weeks after we booked our flights to Russia, Javert contacted me to accuse me of “misrepresentation” and inform me that our tickets would be removed. Fifa later declared that it’s “obvious” that they would sit a family together if they applied for three or four seats separately. I’m glad they do that, but it flies in the face of what’s written on their website, which states they can’t guarantee that the seat of the carer (my wife) would be next to the disabled ticket applicant – so what confidence could we have that a separate application for our 8-year-old son would result in him being seated next to us? Confusion and offence can be caused by unintentionally discriminatory language on a website.

Hong Kong charity’s home-based services help elderly and disabled take care of themselves

My wife unleashed Twitter. Within minutes, her message was retweeted to hundreds of thousands, and she had all manner of MPs, VIPs and television presenters knocking at her virtual door. Fifa relented. But they have not updated the language on their website, which would put off many families with a disabled member from even applying for tickets.

Sadly, Twitter gushed forth a litany of related experiences that transcend sporting events, such as the woman who booked Ed Sheeran tickets at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium for their first family concert trip. They couldn’t sit together because one member is disabled. Indeed, as others tweeted, this is often standard practice for concerts, shows and other events. One tweeter, Angela Kennedy, opined, “Cos disabled ppl aren’t allowed to enjoy things with friends or family”.

My experience is that sometimes we can – but it’s a battle.

Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian. See paulletters.com