A football stadium reflects society, you have supporters of all different age groups and economic backgrounds that attend matches each week. However, like Chinese society in general, the disabled are not very well represented at football matches. We had the chance to talk to a Guoan fan who also happens to be disabled and couldn’t pass up this unique perspective, what follows is her story.
Being disabled in China is hard. That may sound like a real understatement to anyone who has ever spent time in the country, where you rarely see disabled people on the street. Few education or career opportunities exist, often because accessibility is an afterthought at best. The result of this, combined with societal stereotypes, is an almost forced isolation, keeping most disabled people shuttered away, however there is a growing number of Chinese who are pushing back against this.
First tier cities are doing more to recognize the problems faced by the disabled and events like the Olympics, World Expo, and Asian Games have forced cities to take steps in the right direction. In these cities, the issue often isn’t a lack of accessibility, but an uncertainty. You could spend hours trying to figure out which subway stations or bus lines are handicap accessible and often never have a solid answer. The same is true of buildings. I tried many times to find out if Worker’s Stadium was wheelchair accessible or not, to no avail, it took a friend actually seeing a disabled person at a match to realize that indeed there was an accessible section.
The disabled want to be seen as a normal part of society, they have interests like everyone else, and one of them is football. While there aren’t many disabled supporters, there have long been deaf supporters clubs in Shanghai and Dalian, to name two cities, and there has always been a strong disabled following of Chongqing Lifan, no doubt in part because the company makes scooters for the disabled. Yet for disabled supporters who are wheelchair users, Beijing’s Workers Stadium is the only truly accessible stadium in the country and that’s only because it was forced upon them by the IOC. Shanghai’s Hongkou Stadium, while not having specific wheelchair seating, is decently accessible. I have been to a variety of the venues across the country or received feedback from other fans and these are the only two that stand out as being welcoming to disabled fans.
The Beijing disabled section is in a no-man’s land at the southeast corner of the stadium, stuck between the visiting supporters and Guoan fans. During big matches, you’re stuck in the middle and have to deal with flying projectiles from both sides that accidentally make it into your area. It is kind of scary, but it also somewhat exhilarating, to be right in the middle of the action and hearing both sets of fans cheering. It’s something I can’t usually experience at the opposite end of the stadium where I usually sit these days, from this vantage point the away fans are just a colorful, far off blip.
After moving away from the disabled fan’s section, I was always somewhat concerned about how the fans would treat me or how accepting they would be, but before and after every match, there are always at least 4 or 5 fans who are more than happy to help me up or down the many steps of Gongti. I know of only one other wheelchair bound supporter who makes it to Worker’s Stadium a couple of times each year and I think a lot of the problem is the lack of information. Like Isaid at the start, it’s almost impossible to find out before actually visiting if the stadium is accessible or not. It’s also impossible to find out what kind of tickets are needed for the disabled section (as it turns out, any ticket is fine, once you get past the external security, a wheelchair user can enter the disabled seating area with any ticket.
I’ve only talked about deaf and wheelchair users here, China is still decades behind when it comes to blind supporters, and those that want to attend matches need to rely on family, friends, or the radio. Hopefully things will improve for disabled supporters as the years go on, but honestly there is only one way this will become a reality, for more disabled fans to come out and experience the fun of a live match. I love the game, love the roar of the crowd, and enjoy interacting with fellow supporters, hopefully through our interaction they will be more open and understanding about the disabled and we can slowly get past some of the stereotypes that exist.