Disabled fans: Premier League clubs are 'discriminating'

Is the Premier League failing disabled fans?
Swansea and Southampton came out on top of last year's wheelchair space provision survey

Premier League clubs have been threatened with legal action over claims they are discriminating against disabled fans.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) said it has received a number of complaints about clubs, including Manchester United removing walking aids from away fans.

Last year a BBC investigation found that 17 Premier League clubs failed to provide enough wheelchair spaces.

The ECHR wants "urgent assurances".

Joyce Cook, chair of charity Level Playing Field, said: "There can be no more excuses. Disabled fans have waited long enough. It is quite simply time."

One complaint sent to Level Playing Field via the Football Supporters Federation, and seen by BBC Sport, alleges that a number of disabled Arsenal fans, including a man in his 80s, had their walking sticks and crutches taken off them by Manchester United stewards at Old Trafford before their fixture on 17 May.

Manchester United said it is "actively working" with its own disabled supporters association and the Premier League to "assess areas for potential improvement".

Other examples received by the ECHR include disabled fans being prevented from obtaining season tickets and problems for families with young disabled children being unable to sit together at matches.

Guidelines on how football clubs in the UK should cater for disabled spectators have been in place since 2004. The number of wheelchair spaces a stadium should provide is based on its capacity.

It is illegal for service providers, including football clubs, to treat disabled people less favourably than other customers.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief legal officer at ECHR, said Premier League clubs must ensure they "do not discriminate" against disabled fans.

"We are writing to both the Premier League and to Manchester United today to seek urgent assurances that disabled fans will be treated fairly and equally as the law requires.

"We are also seeking urgent meetings with them to clear up the issues which have been identified and agree commitments to early progress.

"While our preference is always to work with organisations to avoid costly legal proceedings," said Hilsenrath, "all options remain on the table because disabled fans deserve better."

Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson blog
"For me this is a moral issue about how sport treats its fans who are disabled people. You might argue that many fans don't get a decent deal, but to not have the right number of wheelchair spaces is unacceptable. I believe the clubs have a moral duty to at least meet the guidelines. It will only change when more people take this matter seriously and also demand change."Read more here.

Earlier this month, the Manchester Evening News reported that Manchester United fan Martin Emery was told he would have to sit separately to his disabled son as a result of seating restrictions at Old Trafford.

Following the findings of last March's BBC study, which also revealed that only eight of the 20 Premier League offer even half the number of wheelchair spaces they should under national guidelines, the Premier League insisted it was working hard to accommodate disabled supporters.

Cook added: "For Premier League football clubs, funding is certainly not an issue."

The Premier League said clubs "expedited" the issue at Thursday's annual general meeting and "remain committed" to improving disabled access.

Last year the EHRC approached the Premier League about a joint project to improve disabled facilities, but then postponed talks ahead of the General Election, a Premier League spokesman said.

A Manchester United spokesman said Old Trafford offers "some of the best facilities for disabled supporters in Europe".

"At each stage of the stadium's development, it has expanded in line with the guidelines in place at the time and with the full involvement of our own disabled supporters' association. The club is committed to making fans' experiences of attending Old Trafford enjoyable ones."