Watford Football Club one of the country's top football clubs, has admitted that it will not meet a promise made by the Premier League that all of its stadiums will meet access standards by August 2017.
The Premier League made the pledge in 2015 after increasing media attention and debates in the House of Lords on poor access and inclusion in watching football. Added to that, increasing concern that the Equality and Human Rights Commission were going to impose sanctions, meant that the League had to do something. The promise was welcomed by the then minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.
Now though it seems months before the deadline hits, Watford have admitted that it has no intention of honouring the pledge to meet standards laid out in in the now 13 year old accessible stadia document.
Its been seen as a dramatic turn around by the club especially as the club recently installed a sensory room for young disabled fans, with equipment funded by A charity partnership between the Lord's Taverners, BT, the Premier League and The Shippey Campaign.
Watford which has a capacity of 21,000, currently only has 61 wheelchair spaces, and will increase this to 92 well short of the 153 required. The number of ambulant and easy access seats will increase from 124 to 173 some 20 more than the minimum requirements.
The club says the extra 61 necessary wheelchair spaces will be achieved in the future through "planned stadium development works".
The club's disabled suporters' association, Watford Football Club Enables (WFC Enables), is also backing the decision to increase spaces to only 92, which they say will "satisfy current demand" from wheelchair-users and leave a "healthy 30 per cent reserve capacity for the future".
David Butler, chair of WFC Enables, said he feared "potentially negative attitudinal change" if extra wheelchair spaces were introduced that were then not taken up by disabled fans and left empty.
He said that each wheelchair space and seat for a personal assistant can mean the removal of between nine and 12 seats for non-disabled fans, as well as further losses to make way for ramps for those seats in elevated positions, of which under access stadia guidelines would require a third to have.
This would mean a 4% reduction in the ground's overall capacity at a time when matches are currently sold out.
"If these additional spaces were to be provided, 700 able-bodied supporters would be displaced from cherished seats that they may have occupied for many years. If these supporters subsequently see that these positions are not appropriately occupied due to lack of demand, they will be at best disgruntled and at worst antagonistic."
Yet many Disability campaigners feel meeting current demand levels by Watford is short sighted.
United Discriminate, state that "With the increase media coverage of the pledge, and changes been made within football to increase access and inclusion, it only makes sense that more fans will want to attend games. Before disabled fans have been deterred by poor facilities and lack of access to tickets, with these barriers removed more and more disabled fans will want to enjoy the beautiful game"
Steve Gilbert from Wrexham Football Clubs Disabled Supporters Association stated the old "build it and they will come" story has never applied to anything better than it does to accessible stadia. We can testify to that at Wrexham! Since making changes to the Racecourse stadium the club have seen an increase in the amount of Disabled fans attending match days.
The AccessAdvisr asked on twitter "Where's the ambition to encourage more disabled people into stadiums from an org supposedly representing disabled people?"
Chair of Level Playing field Tony Taylor questioned why there was not more demand from wheelchair-users when other clubs experienced lengthy waiting-lists for tickets.
Where's the ambition to encourage more disabled people into stadiums from an org supposedly representing disabled people? https://t.co/vdYyXieXW2
— AccessAdvisr (@AccessAdvisr) January 6, 2017
He said: "It may well be that accessing tickets might be more difficult for disabled supporters or that the overall match day experience is lacking for disabled people."
He said clubs had made "significant revenue" from the seats "occupying the spaces wheelchair users should have been able to occupy" in the years since the Accessible Stadia Guide was introduced.Taylor added:
"As an organisation representing disabled people, we know only too well that many disabled football fans are regularly disappointed by their match day experience - inaccessible websites and lack of information, shortage of wheelchair-user spaces, transport and parking problems, insufficient easy access seats for ambulant disabled people, a lack of adequate audio descriptive commentary for blind and partially-sighted fans and all too often as an away fan, having to sit among the home supporters."
The equality watchdog's disability commissioner, Lord Chris Holmes has warned that the commission could take legal action under the Equality Act against individual clubs, and even against the Premier League itself, and believes that probably more than a third of the clubs would fail to meet the Premier League's August 2017 deadline.Presently the Premier League rule book doesn't have a rule in it about meeting accessible stadia guidelines. It has over 32 rules and regulation on what clubs must put in place for the TV, Radio and Media yet only one rule that applies to Disabled Fans and that's made up of just 11 words.
Rule K.34. Each Club shall provide sufficient and adequate facilities for disabled supporters.
The Premier League is due to publish a club-by-club account of progress on meeting its access pledge later this month.
A Premier League spokesman stated: "It is for Watford to communicate the work they are doing in this area, and they have done so in great detail in the article you have referenced. Clearly the club has consulted its disabled fans and significant progress has and continues to be made.
A big concern for many disabled fans now is that Watford have opened the door to other clubs following them and not meeting the promise to meet access standards.