Government minister holds up Emirates Stadium’s disabled facilities as blueprint for best practice

Barbara and Thomas Grover are Arsenal season ticket holders. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

Barbara and Thomas Grover are Arsenal season ticket holders. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey - Credit: Archant

Disabled facilities at the Emirates Stadium are being held up by the government as a benchmark for best practice to be emulated across the country.

Alun Francis is Arsenal's disability liason officer. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

Alun Francis is Arsenal's disability liason officer. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey - Credit: Archant

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on whether it should be mandatory for new stadia, shopping centres and other large public sites to provide “changing places” where people with “profound” learning or physical disabilities can go to the toilet with dignity.

Arsenal became the first Premier League Club to introduce “changing places”, which include height adjustable benches, hoists and room for carers, in 2014. These are now available at most top division grounds.

Thomas Grover, 28 – a lifelong Arsenal fan who is wheelchair bound and has a speech impediment – has gone to “the majority of home games” since Arsenal moved to the Emirates in 2006.

Asked what he likes about club’s facilities, Thomas said: “I just enjoy the atmosphere. It’s the right size. This is really nice [...] I get a really nice feeling here.”

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His mother, Barbara, 60, added: “Arsenal is his life, really, and because we come here so often it’s just like a home from home.

“It’s friendly and I think he finds it quite relaxing and happy.”

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Alun Francis, who has worked as Arsenal’s disability liaison officer for the past 14 years, said: “At [the club’s old stadium] Highbury we had 100 places for wheelchair users and 25 for non-wheelchair users but here we now have 258 wheelchair user places and the same number of places for people with walking disabilities or visual impairment – it’s pretty good.

“The Premier League disabled stadium guide, which is our bible, says we should have 250 [wheelchair user places] but we have gone beyond that.

“We also have a sensory room for supporters with autism and we have audio commentary services for blind users.

“Rather than your standard Radio 5 commentary, this is really descriptive – so someone who’s blind or visually impaired gets the same amount of entertainment [someone without visual impairment] would.”

There are also 104 blue badge bays, for people with disabilities, in the Emirates car park.

Rishi Sunak, the parliamentary under-secretary for housing, communities and local government, has been meeting disabled people across the country to discuss “changing places”.

He suggested Arsenal’s facilities are actually even larger than most people say they need, and the “sweet spot” is a slightly smaller model.

While at the Emirates, the junior minister – who voted in March 2016 to cut the Employment Support Allowance disability benefit – was making a promotional film about his work calling for more “changing places” facilities.

For reasons beyond Mr Sunak’s control, the Gazette didn’t get to interview him during his visit.

But the next day he sent us this statement: “Going to the football to watch your team play is one of life’s great pleasures.

“It’s something I love doing and millions of others do too. But sadly, for many with complex disabilities, that’s not something they can enjoy because they need access to a special ‘Changing Places’ toilet.

“Without that, they don’t have the dignity they need and they deserve. Arsenal were the first Premier League club to install a Changing Places toilet at their stadium.

“The Premier League have done a fantastic job at ensuring lots of other clubs do too. And now the government is going to do more as well. We want to ensure more of these vital Changing Places facilities are available up and down the country.

“We are going to consult soon on making it mandatory for all new, large buildings that people use – like shopping centres, leisure centres, theme parks, arenas, stadiums – to all have Changing Places installed as standard.”

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