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Disabled football supporters assisted by Darlington FC

A FOOTBALL club is hoping to encourage more disabled supporters to attend matches by looking at measures to improve their experience.

A forum, organised by Darlington Disabled Supporters' Group which is part of the Darlington Supporters’ Trust, was held at the club yesterday to get views on how services for disabled fans could be improved.

Although the club is accessible to disabled people and has 165 wheelchair spaces, with disabled accommodation in both the home and away sections, the club wanted to ask groups including Mencap and Darlington Association on Disability what other steps they could take.

Suggestions included introducing a commentary system for visually-impaired supporters and a bus to pick up disabled supporters from the suburbs.

Other propositions included sending all staff on disability awareness courses and setting up a buddy scheme where able-bodied fans could volunteer to accompany disabled fans to matches.

The club has appointed disability liaison officer Paul Hodgson, a wheelchair user and member of the Darlington Disabled Supporters’ Group, who has taken on the role in a voluntary capacity.

The group has also produced a booklet to be given out with home and away tickets, and available on request, explaining services for disabled fans and listing useful contact details. They are looking into producing formats for visually-impaired people.

Mr Hodgson told The Northern Echo that although Darlington Football Club has 165 wheelchair spaces, only around 25 disabled fans regularly attended matches at the Darlington Arena in Neasham Road.

He said he wanted to remove barriers preventing or putting off disabled fans from attending.

“I have been given an opportunity to try and get disabled people down to the football ground. It is great for the disabled fans as they now have a contact if they have got any problems,” he said.

Gary Mains, from the National Association of Disabled Supporters, said it was important to remember to cater for away fans as well as home fans.

“People tell me they won’t go to certain away games because they have been once and had a bad experience,” he said.

Commercial director Christine Balford said appointing Mr Hodgson was just the first step of an ongoing process.

“We have got the venue and it is fairly well-equipped, from my knowledge,” she said. “We have got to start spreading the message. It is an organic process. It will grow.”

Mr Hodgson can be contacted by emailing paulofdarlo@yahoo.co.uk

Written by Lauren Pyrah
The Northern Echo