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Facilities: Inclusive Audiences

Football stadia are leading the way in providing facilities for those with learning disabilities and mental health issues. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management Oct 2016 issue 127
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
The new sensory room at Sunderland FC’s Stadium of Light provides a calm space for Nathan Shippey to enjoy football with his parents, Kate and Peter
The new sensory room at Sunderland FC’s Stadium of Light provides a calm space for Nathan Shippey to enjoy football with his parents, Kate and Peter

“Not all disabilities involve wheelchairs and we are raising awareness of hidden disabilities, which are often overlooked, but need addressing in a big way,” says Kate Shippey, mother of three children with autism, and co-founder of The Shippey Campaign, which aims to get sensory rooms installed in all football stadia, making matches accessible to those with sensory difficulties, like autism.

Currently, around 700,000 people in the UK are affected by autism, and a high proportion suffer from sensory difficulties. For them, the noise of a large crowd is agitating and hurts their heads, triggering the response that neurotypical people feel when hearing nails scraping down a blackboard. Those with Sensory Processing Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Depression and Agoraphobia can also be affected.

The Shippey Campaign began when Peter Shippey took his son, Nathan, to see Sunderland play. Despite being armed with ear defenders, headphones, his favourite music and a hat, and being desperate to see his favourite team play, the noise was too much for Nathan and they had to leave. After further unsuccessful attempts they asked Sunderland if they would consider creating a sensory room, something they believe to be a world first.

Sunderland leads the way
Following almost a year of research, drawing plans and meeting with the club and specialists, The Nathan Shippey Sensory Room was launched for the 2015/16 season, providing a safe, calm space for up to three fans and three carers to watch the match behind glass. The project has been a resounding success, running at full capacity, as well as earning the title of Best Marketing Initiative at the Stadium Events and Hospitality Awards in 2016.

“When we saw how popular the room was after a few games, we launched The Shippey Campaign,” says Peter Shippey. “Our aim is to have facilities like this nationwide, in every stadium. As the room was full for every match, with a waiting list, we became a registered charity in May 2016 to help us on our mission.”

The movement is fast gaining momentum. This summer, Notts County Football Club worked with Autism East Midlands to convert four executive boxes into three sensory rooms and a room for parents to have a pint, or some quiet time. With some community help to paint the boxes and the donation of equipment from Rompa, Notts County has created three different rooms, as people with autism have a variety of different needs.

“They all have comfy armchairs, beanbags, lava type lamps and sensory mats, but one is visual, one is touchy feely and one is for people who might have a shorter attention span and need a room which has lots of variety,” says Notts County FC’s human resources manager, Beverley Markland. “They can hear some of the noise, but can also drown it out. They have their own space so they can participate in the match to the extent that they feel comfortable.”

The occupancy for each room is eight; four people with complex learning difficulties and four carers. However, the club has found many families have wanted to book the rooms for exclusive use, to make the most of a rare opportunity to enjoy a family experience together.

As Mair Dyer, director of adult services for Autism East Midlands explains: “It can be difficult for families with an autistic child, or adult, to find activities they can enjoy together. This may particularly be the case where the autistic individual has sensory needs and may find noisy, busy and bright environments overwhelming. Equally an environment which requires people to be quiet or has a restriction on the ability to move about may be just as challenging.

“A lack of understanding of the impact of autism on an individual can mean families experience judgemental reactions, especially where the individual’s behaviour is not seen as appropriate by others for the situation or activity being undertaken. 

“Often the combination of the expectations of others, plus finding something that meets the needs of everyone in the family is just too great. This can result in the family having to divide itself to accommodate differing activities, or just not being able to access particular activities at all.”

Pop-up sensory room
Other clubs are starting to follow suit. Chesterfield Town’s September match against Northampton Town featured a pop-up sensory room, organised by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust and Accessible Derbyshire, with the space provided by TM Accounting Services and Rompa supplying the equipment. A number of youngsters affected by autism, together with their families, were invited to use the room as guests of the club.

“For many of the families it was their first experience of a match and it was smiles all around,” says Accessible Derbyshire co-founder, Gillian Scotford. “The children were comforted by the ear defenders and fascinated by the bubble tubes, interactive lights and sensory toys.

“It was a very safe and comforting environment for both the carers and the children and knowing you’re among others who understand makes the whole experience more relaxing. We’ve already had emails asking about the next event.”

Peter and Kate Shippey are now in talks with the Premier League and have hosted more than 20 representatives from clubs throughout the leagues at The Nathan Shippey Sensory Room. They have even been contacted by the new Perth Stadium in Australia, which is interested in their advice. Rangers FC is already in the process of creating a sensory room and Newcastle FC is currently undertaking a full accessibility review and a sensory room will be considered as part of this provision.

“We would love to see more spectator facilities offering a safe and calm environment for those with sensory difficulties,” says Shippey. “Currently the door to the most popular sports are shut to those with these difficulties and their families. Generally, when we read about sports facilities being adapted for disabilities, we read about wheelchair access, however, sensory difficulties can be as debilitating.”

Dyer warmly welcomes all these efforts from the clubs. “It opens up football to those who would be overwhelmed by the experience, lets them try something new and enjoy a different family experience. Hopefully this is the start of a new generation of family experiences. Autism-friendly communities are important, as people with autism and their families are often excluded due to a lack of awareness.”

CREATING A SAFE SPACE

It’s not just football stadia that need to be more aware of how to be more welcoming to those who suffer from autism and other sensory conditions, and both the Shippey Campaign and Autism East Midlands are happy to consult with operators on how to do this.

Tips from the experts
Autism East Midlands provides autism awareness training for a small charge, ranging from a basic two hour session, to a bespoke service for bigger companies.

Mair Dyer from Autism East Midlands suggests putting a visual walkthrough of the facility on the website. Also running sessions at a quieter time of day, or creating a quiet space without bright lighting.

For more details visit: www.theshippeycampaign.com www.autismeastmidlands.org.uk

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