16 April 2024

‘We’re making progress on improving matchdays for disabled Tigers fans’

A group that was set up to be a voice for Hull City fans with disabilities is raising awareness of the help it can offer – as well as the fact that not all disabilities are visible, writes Sam Hawcroft

The Hull City Disabled Supporters Association was co-founded earlier this year by David Batte, who has Crohn’s disease, and Dan Little, whose father, partner and young son have various disabilities.

Both had come up against a range of issues that had an impact on their enjoyment of, and access to, Hull City matches. They wanted to highlight the fact that, although disabled people are viewed as a “minority”, they are a significant one – it is estimated that one in four people in the UK has a condition of some kind that limits their movement, senses or activities.

David (pictured), a self-employed auditor who has worked with numerous charities on disability issues, felt the first step should be to survey fans’ groups – and the response, he says, “exceeded expectations” and revealed a good deal of insight into their experiences.

Respondents covered a wide age group and had varying levels of disabilities, from wheelchair users to fans with autism, hearing problems or anxiety, the latter being a recurring theme. The survey also identified barriers to attending matches such as issues with ticketing, anxiety and seating view restrictions.

David then set up a working group on Twitter, at the same time as making contact with Dan, who had posted publicly about the problems he was having with ticketing arrangements.

When tickets went on sale online, they were often snapped up before disabled people had a chance to get them because they were asked to phone the club directly.

Dan’s posts about this inevitably attracted ignorant and stereotypical comments such as, “You’re a carer, you technically get in for half- price anyway.”

Dan wanted to challenge such stereotypes and engage with the club to improve the MKM Stadium’s facilities. He said: “Although at the time of building it was state-of-the-art in all departments, it has fallen on hard times and been neglected in certain ways, especially towards disabled users.

“With not having a disability, I thought I could bring a different mindset to the group, i.e. from a carer’s point of view. My dad has needed a wheelchair for long distances for more than 20 years, my partner suffers from mobility issues, and my lad has brain damage from birth.”

David asked Dan to be the vice- chairman of the Hull City DSA, which eventually turned into a formal organisation under guidance from Level Playing Field.

The next challenge was getting the word out, and this is where Bobbi Hadgraft came in. Bobbi, a local journalist – once of the Gazette, of course – and now working in Manchester as a producer on BBC TV and radio, is an avid City fan with more than 15,000 followers on Twitter. David brought her on board as a special adviser as a result of her close links with the club as well as her large social media presence.

Bobbi said: “There have been a lot of changes at Hull City lately, obviously with the change
of ownership, and there are so many exciting initiatives such as trying to improve the atmosphere, attendances, the transport that they’ve introduced, things like that. But David highlighted that there hadn’t been any progress in terms of improving the match experience for supporters with disabilities.

“He took ownership of that initiative, but he was just struggling with communicating it to the club. He got in touch with me to see if I could help, so I contacted the club directly and it was just one of those things where I kept pecking away until something was done.

“The club’s doing so much positive work to make sure that everyone has the best experience, that everyone’s included in this whole idea of being one family, and it just seemed daft that there wasn’t a voice to speak for the disabled supporters.”

Bobbi has personal experience, too, with a family member suffering from bowel problems that made matchdays uncomfortable and even nervewracking on occasion. Among the Hull City DSA’s objectives is an ongoing review of the toilets at the MKM Stadium, with at least one per stand to be stoma-friendly with “hidden disabilities” stickers.

David said: “We’re trying to increase our reach across the whole spectrum of disability, and of course a lot of people automatically think it’s wheelchair users.

“We do have members who are wheelchair users, but equally we’ve got quite a few people who have so-called hidden disabilities.

“This group really does bring you across a wide range of people, and it’s about trying to get ourselves known – and known to people who don’t perhaps consider themselves to be disabled as such, but they may have a limiting condition of some kind. They would still come under our spectrum, and we might be able to help them.”

The DSA is also keen to improve the sensory experience at the MKM Stadium. There is currently a sensory room for people with autism, ADHD or other neuro-divergencies, but it is
under the South Stand with no view of the pitch and it is only open pre-match.

“There are the lights and loud music before the match,” says David, “but the crescendo of noise tends to be when the team is attacking the goal and scores, and that’s when people with these conditions can find it a bit overwhelming. Sometimes they need a breakout room, just somewhere to escape to, and that’s why most clubs have their sensory room with a view of the pitch, and it’s easily accessible for people who have those kind of problems. It’s something we’re really keen to work with the club on.”

David credits Hull City’s new marketing manager, Andrew Clark, and new fans’ liaison officer Brendon Smurthwaite (who was media manager at the club in the “good old days” of Boothferry Park) with being the catalysts for acting on such issues and progressing the growth and development of the DSA.

“They’re very receptive,” adds David. “They aren’t just going to stand still, and they do seem very keen to modernise things. The problem was the previous owners didn’t really put a lot of money into modernising the stadium.

“I went to Swansea the other week and it was clear they had spent money on disabled facilities and they have dedicated disability stewards, which was really well received by our disabled fans. They have more modern features, as do Hull Kingston Rovers – is I’m told that their disabled features are quite modern.

“Hull City owner Acun Ilicali seems to have more of an open door – an open chequebook, perhaps! And I was recently speaking to Lisa Jewitt from FC Voices, the Hull FC fans group, who are really keen to work with us.”

Much has been achieved by the Hull City DSA in a very short space of time, adds Dan. “I’m very proud that David asked me to be his vice-chairman. We’ve been to numerous meetings with the club already and have been given agreements that certain things we’ve raised will be investigated at the end of the season.

“I’ve stated publicly and personally to people and DSA members that I believe we are about six months ahead of schedule and that we’ll know roughly where we stand by the end of the season.”

The Hull City DSA has a private group on Facebook, and is on Twitter @HullCityDSA. For more information, visit hullcitydsa.com.