Towards an inclusive experience for disabled Town fans

Cod Almighty | Article

by Dan Humphrey

17 February 2022

With plans for a move from Blundell Park downgraded, the Mariners need to bring their thinking about disabled supporters up to date

As the Mariners Trust boasts, Grimsby Town's Disabled Supporters Club was among the first of its kind when it was formed in 1980. Led by Daphne Farquharson from its inception until last summer, it has raised the funds to ensure that its members to follow the Mariners across the country.

Those members cannot fail to have noticed the transformation of many grounds over the last 40 years. There is a clear difference in facilities specifically designed and provided after the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (with enhanced legal requirements for new buildings/stadia) compared to grounds which are often older than their users. I attended Bolton Wanderers' old Burnden Park once. Its facilities were OK, with a great raised view accessible by ramps, but now the Reebok Stadium puts it to shame.

Our own Blundell Park resembles the Burnden Park that Bolton left behind long ago. My father, who was registered disabled for the second half of his life, attended many games at Blundell Park in the 1990s. He tried to get facilities improved slightly, with mind-boggling resistance from the club to the notion of installing a handrail in the disabled toilet his personal lowlight. When it finally happened, it cannot have taken more than 30 minutes to install. As he got older he found attending games more difficult, not just because of the low temperature but also because of such factors as difficulties parking and the limited view.

The handrail is now in place, but otherwise the facilities haven't really altered since. Disabled supporters at Blundell Park are told which stand they have to use, and only the far side of it, the most weather-exposed part, and a sole inconveniently placed toilet. Leaving it to volunteers is far from satisfactory. 

Disabled supporters who don't go to Blundell Park because of the mediocre dated facilities might never go until they are improved. It becomes Catch-22

There was clearly little appetite for investment in the ground when John Fenty was aiming for relocation. But saying that facilities will be better at a new ground was a poor excuse for not reviewing facilities for a whole generation. Similarly the relatively low numbers of disabled supporters we have attending gave another excuse, but we have to escape that traditional, narrow approach. Disabled supporters who don't go to BP because of the mediocre dated facilities might never go until they are improved. It becomes Catch-22. If we don't have enough disabled supporters to make a noise for better facilities, we might not get any better facilities, and then won't attract more disabled supporters. 

The club's new owners, with their minds open on whether we should stay at or leave Blundell Park, provide the opportunity for a rethink. There are signs of progress, but still much to be done. Daphne Farquharson retired last summer and the Disabled Supporters Club is now run by Dave Roberts and his brother Paul. As a Mariners Trust representative on the board, Dave will be able to voice their needs directly, yet the change seems to have had little publicity. We now have a Disabled Liaison Officer, but it would be great to hear more from them.

After so many quiet years, can we look forward to things changing? I was pleased when I received a quick, and comprehensive response from Kris Green, the chair of the Mariners Trust, when I asked for an update:

"In December the Club held a meeting with disabled supporters to listen directly. Some changes have been identified and costings are being sought. Our CEO Debbie Cook was at that meeting and speaks to our disabled supporters regularly to see what we can do in the short term to improve the match day experience. We'll also be launching a sensory pack in the next few weeks as not all disabilities are visible. Again, it's something that we’ve discussed with the very fans that will use it, as well as Level Playing Field to ensure implementation is done in the right way.

“I think it’s very important to seek input directly from those that have additional requirements and may need adaptations. It’s evident from the great response that the disabled travel group receive when fundraising, that support for them is there from the wider fanbase. Sometimes, although done from a place of care, people looking to speak on behalf of fans who rely on a wheelchair for mobility for instance are not always accurately representing their views."

The new screen at the front of the Upper Findus is a great example of a radical solution already delivered. Many other clubs have also introduced sensory packs to help make the matchday experience for fans with autism more comfortable and enjoyable, so I am impressed that we are following suit. Hopefully there will be news of more changes as the work proceeds.

Level Playing Field are precisely the type of national specialist organisation you would hope the club would liaise with in this regard. It is positive that there is engagement with them as they articulate, in one sentence, what we should be aiming for: "a positive, inclusive experience for disabled sports fans."

Can fans, perhaps via the Trust, assist? What can be done by fans to help improve our facilities? I want the club to work with supporters and with Level Playing Field to aspire to attract higher numbers of disabled supporters - of Town and the teams we play - to Blundell Park, regardless of disability, tackling whatever is currently keeping them away.