Standing up for Ibrox accessibility improvements

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Over the last few months, much has been made of apparent discussions between Rangers and various supporters groups about the creation of a standing section similar to what Celtic have been trialling at Parkhead. So much so that Club1872 is midway through a survey whereby they will consider helping fund such a project. And, as someone who spent the best part of ten years as part of the Blue Order, I can certainly appreciate the nuances of such a debate.

There’s no doubt that year on year the atmosphere at Ibrox is gradually getting worse. You can put it down to the awful Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (repealed or not), or even attribute it to our recent financial travails but the very biggest games aside, it’s not often you come away from a home game thinking what a noise the fans made. Sure, our journey down into the lower leagues was never going to match a Champions League run but it’s now been the better part of eighteen months since we returned to the top division and can we really point to a game where the atmosphere matches those of previous years?

With that in mind, a standing section via the utilisation of 1:1 rail seating that Celtic have demonstrated makes some sense. Although such a ratio may mean the capacity might actually reduce, fans who stand do suggest they feel more engaged with the game. Rather than sitting moaning and groaning, fans can instead feel part of what’s going on. Being able to move with events in the game sounds somewhat absurd but fans of a certain vintage will identify with such a description. The thought of several thousand Rangers fans being able to stand together and genuinely improve the experience surely can’t fail to excite even the most contemporary supporter. Yeah, I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, in my opinion there is also a rather large but.

Firstly, the complaints about seated fans not being able to take part in the same way don’t always convince me. Ibrox has been fully seated for nearly thirty years and the atmosphere at many of those games has often blown away supporters and players throughout that period. From games against Parma and Inter Milan to Aberdeen and Celtic; when the fans can be bothered, there’s few stadia that can match us. Ironically, I often wish for a poor referee nowadays as that seems to be one influence that can stop the sweetie papers rustling and get the great bear restless.

Even more important, however, are the issues facing our less able fans. Two years ago our website carried an article outlining the difficulties disabled fans experienced when attending football games. Although at the time, it was Hampden that was being criticised for its lack of modern facilities, clearly Ibrox Stadium is closer to our hearts and if we recognise that supporters have to attend 20 games or more here each season, then it should be our primary consideration.

In that regard, Rangers do acknowledge the issues they face. With only around 110 wheelchair spaces within a capacity of over 50,000, Ibrox falls well below UEFA guidelines of 230. Approximately 8% of the UK’s population use a wheelchair, so we immediately fail that standard. Similarly, if we add in the lack of facilities available for other beneficiaries of good access then this is a very real problem. Let’s remember not every disability is obvious or that such supporters may have multiple challenges. Indeed, in 2014 the Scottish Government reported that 23% of adults living in Scotland had a long term limiting health condition or disability. These figures show just how important stadium accessibility should be.

Of course we can’t be naïve. Implementing properly recommended and fit-for-purpose facilities isn’t cheap and can be logistically difficult. In recent times, Rangers installed just four elevated wheelchair spaces in the Broomloan Stand at a cost of £80,000. The club were also praised for the 2017 opening of their sensory room in the same stand which allows up to eight children and young adults with sensory difficulties, such as autism, acclimatise to the noise, crowds and bustle of a busy match-day. With the aid of the Disability Matters Group and with help from fans funding, this is the kind of the project that can be completed when the club and supporters work together. However it also cost a large five figure sum.

Conversely, let’s remember that in recent years the Scottish Government has also spent millions bringing in controversial new laws related to football. Similarly, charities which address the difficulties facing minority groups and reasonably small-scale social issues such as sectarianism and racism are often funded directly from the government and have huge exposure in the media. Yet, the world’s largest minority group are catered poorly within our country’s most popular sport. And little is made of the poor experience they regularly have when attending games. Worse still, many disabled fans haven’t even been given the opportunity to go because our football stadiums cater so poorly for them.

Let’s now look at what is offered to disabled fans in this country:

Ibrox Stadium
Parkhead
Pittodrie
Fir Park
Victoria Park (Global Energy Stadium)

After speaking to the supplier of the photos above we can also list a number of other common issues disabled fans face:

“Pitch-side low level leaves us at the mercy of the elements. In some grounds the roof extends over the wheelchair area to provide some degree of shelter however most don't. Two that are particularly bad in this respect are Ibrox and Hampden, in both cases the roofs cease directly above the wheelchair areas this causes a cascading effect and lumps of water can absolute soak those below. As such it's not uncommon to see wheelchair users having to leave because they're absolutely soaked. Personally I once got pneumonia at a game.”

“The placement of advertising boards and TV cameras tend to obscure what is already a poor view. Little thought goes into their placement and sometimes just moving them a couple of feet would make a massive difference to the wheelchair section (New Love Street and Hamilton’s Superseal Stadium are prime of examples of this).”

“Stewards and police obscuring the view is a major and constant problem - at times we're virtually looking at a wall of high visibility jackets totally obscuring the pitch. Kneeling or crouching helps (you'd be amazed at the difference such a simple gesture makes) but it doesn’t happen often enough. If you watch English games on TV note the actions of the stewards there just before HT and FT and you'll see they invariably almost without exception sit, kneel, crouch and sometimes even lay on the ground whilst the game is in play so not to obscure the view.”

“Accessing toilets is also a big problem sometimes. Part of that is people who don't need an accessible toilet using it because they can't be bothered to walk five extra yards to the gents. The use of RADAR keys would certainly reduce that happening and quite a few grounds have got RADAR locks fitted. Despite assurances that they would Rangers haven't as yet - in fact one disabled toilet in the East Enclosure has not had a working lock on it all season. Then there is the general shortage of accessible toilets but that's probably a reflection of wider society rather than a football specific problem.”

“Access to food and drink is another problem. The best practice recommends that where there is no access to a kiosk then the host club should provide an order and delivery service. Some do (Partick Thistle for one) and it is most welcome however many that should provide this service don't.”

“Parking is another major problem for wheelchair users (though I concede that is the case for most all fans). There is a general scarcity of disabled parking bays (ones to standard BS8300) which are 1m wider than normal bays in order that the vehicle door can be fully opened so the wheelchair user can embark and disembark the vehicle. Grounds such as Hampden and the Superseal stadium had to provide disabled parking spaces (BS8300) as part of their planning permissions and licence requirements yet point blank refuse to let disabled fans use them on match days. The best practice guide also recommends that there be a drop off point/pick up point at stadiums for wheelchair users but as far as I'm aware the only club in Scotland doing so are Hearts.”

I’m pretty sure we could fill this page with a variety of other photos, videos and dreadful stories but, embarrassingly, said source of the above information then apologised for complaining. Think of that the next time you buy a pie that’s too hot or you have to queue for the toilets.

Clearly from these photos the most basic experience offered to disabled fans just isn’t good enough and clubs, football authorities and governments appear to be shirking their responsibilities when it comes to offering suitable access for those who need it. Unfortunately, as much as we have well-meaning advisories and guidelines, there’s no legal enforcement which means progress is slow.

In that sense, wouldn’t it be inspiring for our club to take the lead - not to mention Club 1872? Yes it wouldn’t be cheap and yes, there may be more pressing requirements but – as much as it’s not meant by those advocating it – how selfish does the expensive installation of a mass standing section now look?

In conclusion, I'd contend that if the Copland Front or one of the Enclosures is to be converted back to standing in the next few years then this should only occur if every single pound spent on such is matched by the same monies (or more) being spent on ensuring Ibrox has beneficial accessibility facilities for a truly appropriate number of fans.

That’s the kind of forward thinking our gallant pioneers had and it should be the reasoning used to deliver such as soon as practicably possible.

Further reading

Our Vision: 'Total Football - Total Access' - http://www.cafefootball.eu/en/our-vision-total-football-total-access

This Gersnet column first appeared in WATP Magazine (Issue #22) and is reproduced with their kind permission.

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