Martina Heath is the General Manager of Southampton FC’s Girls and Women’s Programme. She recently became an ambassador for the Saints Disabled Supporters Association (SDSA), which aims to promote the welfare of Saints supporters and in particular, disabled supporters. As we continue to mark Level Playing Field’s, Unite for Access campaign this year, we spoke to Martina who opened up candidly about becoming an SDSA ambassador and what accessibility means to her…
I’ve been here for nearly seven years in different roles within the Girls’ and Women’s Programme and now as General Manager, I basically tell everyone where to go, what to do and how to do it. I organise mainly the first team in terms of operations, fixtures, transport, and supporting the staff and players, however, I am also now taking more of a strategic lead in terms of where we want the programme to be. Ultimately, we want to finish in the top half of the Women’s Championship and to become a competitive WSL club, with that end product of the Champions League final and to inspire our community on and off the pitch to win “The Southampton Way”.
How much of a focus is there on accessibility within St Mary’s Stadium and within the teams at Saints?
This is something I've always been really, really conscious about. I think, as people, we're all individuals and I'm really fortunate I've been exposed to people who have additional needs. I have a niece who's severely disabled and needs 24-hour care, but actually, although she can't communicate verbally, she understands everything you're saying to her. I think it's great to have diversity within our fanbase, staff and players. It's really important that we understand everyone's individual needs – it's about being supportive of those who might need that extra support. For example, someone might want to come and watch football, but actually, the environment is too loud for them, so we need to be aware there are individual needs and make sure we can cater for that. We may not always be able to, but we’ll do our best.
The experiences you've had with your niece and seeing first-hand how important accessibility is, must have been a massive driver behind you wanting to become an SDSA ambassador…
Absolutely. In my previous job, I worked in disability football and when I started here at Saints, it was a real challenge having to leave that. I remember one lad who came to a powerchair football session I'd set up. He came in with his mum and said he wasn’t allowed to play football at school. I said, ‘what do you mean you're not allowed to play football at school? Of course, you can!’ He went back to school and said, ‘Martina said I can play football, look.’ His mum then showed them a video of him playing and it was about the school not being scared. I'm pleased to say that young lad went on to play for England in powerchair football. That makes me so proud - just one conversation to start challenging a situation, to try and make an impact.
Disability is so far reaching too - it can be mental or physical but a mental disability can impact you physically and vice versa. And that shows the considerations a football club needs to take in regards to its community and the fans who come to games too…
Definitely and that includes the players too - we need to ensure, if there are players who do need support in terms of their mental wellbeing, or if they’re on the spectrum, that we as an elite sporting environment work to support them. We have to educate ourselves as staff too – at the beginning of the season, we did a lot of work and undertook a lot of learning around this to try and better support our players should we need to. I'm no expert on disability and so I'm always trying to learn and I want to understand as much as possible.
Football should never be about ‘you can't’ or ‘you're not allowed’. A well-known saying within the sport is ‘football for all’ and that’s exactly what we need to achieve, regardless of gender, disability, age or anything else.
With that goal in mind, do you think Southampton Football Club is doing enough?
As an employee of the club, I can sit here and say, I absolutely do but there's always more to be done and we never stop! My niece is now 20 – while growing up, she’s had to change her wheelchair every year. I see the fight and the struggle they as a family go through for that and then I see my daughter who’s doing an apprenticeship and after that she wants to have her own hairdressing salon. My niece is still in college but what can she do next? What experiences can she have? There’s also the question of support for those parents too - their children become adults but will then stay with them. What respite do they get? If there was something we as a club could offer, so the parents could stay home while those young adults came to the stadium - as long as we knew what their needs were, and could support them on the day, that’d be great. I also see the daily struggle my brother and his family go through (he was diagnosed with Clinical PTSD) so to know he can come to the stadium with his assistance dog (Dexter) and his wife and children and enjoy football like any other family makes me a very proud big sister and very proud to work for this great club.
Is that what you want to achieve as an SDSA ambassador?
I want to learn from the guys in the Association, to listen to them about the struggles they’ve faced around additional needs. I'm not saying we’re going to be able to do everything all of the time but again, I think it's really important to have those conversations and share experiences. I'm really protective of my family and I want to support their individual needs and I feel the same way about our fans. Let’s really push on and offer everything we can to make sure football is for all.
Why is the Unite for Access campaign so important and why did we need to make sure Saints is part of it?
This is an amazing game we have here for men, for women, for everyone, so we need to keep ensuring anyone can be involved in it. Whether that's watching, playing, coaching, or refereeing, it's so important that we as a football club continue to grow. We also need to ensure we're ready and open to support people with additional needs into our workforce. The more diverse your workforce, the better the output. The best possible accessibility gives anyone who wants to be part of the sport, in whatever way, an opportunity to do so and that’s why the aim of Unite for Access is so great.
To find more information about accessibility at St Mary's Stadium and the facilities we offer to fans with disabilities, you can head to our Supporter Services pages and our Disabled Supporters page.