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The first thing I need to make clear is that I am not a watcher of sport. I don’t follow the tennis, the athletics, nor do I care about the World Cup. I’m not interested in watching. I’m a doer. I’ve played football for my local women’s team, netball at the parents evening, swimming competitively, sailing, water-skiing, horse riding. I’m a doer. Or at least I was!
My Other Half follows the American Football. He is a big Miami Dolphins fan and we’ve seen them play three or four times, here and in the U.S. He has been a fan since before I met him thirty odd years ago so eventually, after years of resistance, if you can’t beat ‘em you join ‘em and therefore, in the spirit of togetherness, I picked a team.
Jacksonville Jaguars joined the league at around the time I did, so it was a natural progression to be on their side as the newbies in their Conference.
This year they came to London to play the Philadelphia Eagles at Wembley and we rang the disability hotline about at zillion times to try to get tickets to the game. I was repeatedly dialling over and over and when I managed to get in the queue I was on hold for two and a half hours. Eventually it was answered and the phone went ‘blip’ and I was cut off!!!
I dialled again, again, again, and got in the queue again and 1 hour and forty minutes later it was answered. There was only one option of wheelchair space and there was only one space left so I took it. One wheelchair and one carer please. Yep. We got tickets.
So last Saturday I planned for the following day with the usual military precision. We discovered that there is no parking for the venue on this day so I got onto Google Maps and found the nearest Tesco Superstore. We could have used public transport and I did look into it but it was going to take over two hours even before I factored in the wheelchair and found stations with access. Compared with a forty-minute drive and free parking, not to mention the comfort and convenience of door to door, there was no contest. So we drove.
The game wasn’t starting until 1.30pm so I reckoned that if we left home about 8am, forty-minute drive remember, get to Tesco before 9am then a quick bus ride to the stadium. We should easily be there by 10am for a late breakfast. #Nomnomnom Sorted.
First thing I needed to do was empty my colossal handbag. NFL rules state that only a small clutch type bag is allowed into the stadium and everything must be in a clear bag of certain dimensions and absolutely no food and drink. This poses a problem as I carry about myself and my chair an assortment of paraphernalia that combine to make my life as easy and comfortable as it can be. For example, I use a shaped drink bottle to hydrate and I need medical stuff for the day. Not to mention the essential items found in every lady’s bag. No way was that lot going to fit into a clutch! This could be a problem. I emptied as much as I possibly could and returned the rest hoping that they wouldn’t notice.
On the day we got up on time and quickly made coffee in thermos cups to go then my belly started rumbling. Uh oh! Excitement and anticipation have for a long time been a cause for me to have to dash to the bathroom with urgency. Not an ideal start. When I was at last ready to roll we were already half hour late leaving the house.
The traffic was mercifully light at that time of a Sunday morning so whizzing around the North Circular to Wembley we managed to claw back a few minutes from our schedule and arrived at Tesco by 9am. Tesco car park was very quiet and we felt very guilty about parking there when we were not intending to use their facilities. We parked right at the very back and skirted the perimeter so as to draw less attention to ourselves. As if a woman in a bright yellow coat and a large electric wheelchair was ever inconspicuous!
Google Maps assured me that the walking time to the stadium was marginally more than the time it would take to go by bus, so we decided to hoof it up the South Way and arrive at the pre-match Tailgate in time to enjoy the build-up.
My Other Half, who, it has to be said, is not known for his directional skills, was convinced that the stadium was in the opposite direction, so we continued along the prescribed route with some misgivings. Until, that is, we arrived at a flight of steps down to the footpath we needed to cross the railway. Unless we could get down to this path we would need to retrace our steps and start again in the opposite direction. I was not ready to give up just yet. We tried two more entrances marked on the map, both with the steps down and no accessible way around then just as we were about to turn back we found a way around. This quick shortcut was taking us further away and it was now 9.30am.
We hurried along the path but now my confidence was shaken. Maybe we would go all the way along this path only to find that there were steps at the other end too! We decided to leave the path in favour of a street that appeared to go in the same direction – until it didn’t, by which time we had committed to this direction and it was quicker to keep going than turn around and go back. I was beginning to wish that we had stuck with the bus!
Eventually, the street led to a bridge over the railway and we could turn a corner towards the stadium again and we arrived at a place that had directions to the various events taking place. It had taken us an hour and a quarter to travel the twenty-minute short cut and we had asked eight people for help.
We decided to head for the official Tailgate area where there were loads of food trailers, bars and entertainment so we walked around the stadium checking out the various entrances and merchandising stalls on the way. We’d decided on a budget for the day and I was keen to make sure that I ended up with something that I could wear to show my support for my team. It was a real shame that wheelchair users had not been considered outside of the stadium. The counter was so high that I couldn’t see over it and it was a real struggle to be heard over the noise around us. There was plenty of things to do if you were able and minted. From inflatable assault courses and bouncy ball pits to face painting and signing programmes but all at a price.
Wembley Stadium has entrance points around it’s perimeter about every hundred yards or so. There was no reason for me to assume that they would all have access for wheelchairs, I just did. So, when we were wandering round and I came upon an accessible entrance I was shocked! Surely this was a new stadium. Wouldn’t it have access at every point? Why would they not? Crowds were beginning to get a lot heavier by now. I get quite claustrophobic when I’m surrounded by people, in crowds. Faced with the multitude of bums and no way to see where the exit is causes me to start to panic.
By now it was getting on for time to make our way to our seats and into the stadium we headed. The staff positioned to help did not seem to know which way we should go and although I’d seen a sign pointing towards the entrance I needed I couldn’t see another and nor could I see the lift anywhere. Fortunately, I saw another wheelchair user and decided to follow them as they were steaming ahead with a destination in mind. It beggars belief that in that great big new stadium that has capacity for something like 85000 people that there is only one lift that is available for wheelchair users!
Having ridden up in the lift to the connecting floor there were many concessions all vying to relieve me of my money. We could have hot chocolate, which was tempting as it was so cold, but it was £2.50 a paper cup (which I would probably drop), or we could have popcorn which was £7 a bag! In the end we decided that Krispy Kreme doughnuts at £6 for three was slightly less of a rip-off and about the same price as the supermarkets.
The seats we’d been given turned out to be really good. We were in the end of the stadium at the goal line, in the first tier and not too high up that we’d need binoculars or be tempted to jump. Is that just me?
Watching the game turned out to be brilliant despite my reluctance initially. I loved it! I never knew that investing in my own team was so emotional, it was amazing. I cheered myself hoarse when we scored and shouted encouragement every time we moved the ball in the right direction. I made friends with the opposing fans and when the final whistle blew, although we didn’t win, I’d had a great time.
My biggest irritation with the benefit of hindsight was that towards the end of the game there were a few people who decided that the wheelchair spaces had a better view than their seats so they came down and jostled about behind us. Their bad language and knocking my chair was really grating on me and it was just so embarrassing in front of so many visitors to the UK. In the U.S. anyone using bad language or even booing unnecessarily is asked to leave. I’ve seen it happen. But here the stewards just made themselves scarce rather than tackle it head on. In the end I had to ask them to stop swearing because I was finding it offensive. To be fair, they did stop.
Maybe it was my scary teacher voice that persuaded them it was in their best interests!
Blog by Heather Farley
Disability Today Volunteer
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