Unite for Access: Meet Tom and Donna

Red, White and You/Tom_and_Donna_rzobkq

Disabilities aren’t always obvious. This year, Level Playing Field’s ‘Unite for Access’ campaign is focusing on ‘hidden disabilities’, which are a wide range of physical and mental conditions that aren’t immediately obvious. In recognition of this, through our Red, White and You initiative we want to introduce you to Tom and Donna, to learn about their matchday experiences with Saints.

Meet 15 year old Tom and his mum Donna, two of the biggest Saints fans around. Tom’s on the autistic spectrum and has loved football for years. He started properly supporting Saints about four years ago and went to his first match just before the first Covid lockdown.

‘Football was on the telly a lot and I became glued to it. I found it really interesting and ever since then, I’ve got more and more into it. Dad’s been a Saints fan since he was a kid so he’s been a big influence on my love of football, too.’

Tom’s first game at St Mary’s was a cup match – while nervous to attend, excitement took over and he’s been football mad ever since. His mum, Donna said she and Tom’s dad were more nervous than he was.

We weren’t sure how Tom would cope with a match so we got seats on the end of the row to make sure we could get out in a hurry if we needed to. But it didn’t cause any problems, he loved it right from the start.

We were anticipating what might happen because in the past we've had to take Tom away from situations where he's not been able to cope when it’s noisy and crowded.’

At St Mary’s Stadium, we have seating available to accommodate all our fans’ individual needs and requirements, including reserved seats in the front row, aisles and near exits for ease of access.

When Tom does get anxious on a matchday it usually centres around losing his parents in the crowd, as Donna explains.

‘We’ve had a situation before where we've been separated and I could see him because he’s so tall but Tom couldn’t see me and he was starting to panic. It's that sort of thing Tom worries about - what if we get separated? What if I get lost? What if somebody strange talks to me? He doesn’t like strangers talking to him. It used to be about noise and lights but the noise and lights at the stadium are some of his favourite parts of the experience now.’

Tom’s autism isn’t immediately visible and so it's classed as a hidden disability. It means on matchdays, it may not be clear Tom could need a hand. That’s where the Saints Access Wristbands come into play.

Available free of charge, wearing an SFC Access Wristband on a matchday means club staff can recognise if you may need additional assistance, without having to share your specific disabilities or needs in an open space.

The SFC Access Wristband enables you:

  • Access to accessible toilets

  • To leave the stadium for a short period of time, should you need access to a ‘safe space’

  • To gain lift access if you’re in Hospitality

  • To get further assistance if you want to buy refreshments

  • Access through our accessible entrance points at the turnstiles

  • The ability to bring a larger bag if you need to carry medication or equipment

Tom says the wristband is a really useful, discreet way of accessing support if he needs it.

‘If I want to, I can use the wristband when going to get food from the bar, if I need to go to the toilet, or if I get split up from my parents in the crowd. I find a steward and written on the wristband is my seat number so they can help me get back to it.’

Football should be for everyone but where it isn’t accessible to members of our society, that’s where we need to improve. As Tom explains, being able to come to games is really important to him.

‘From what I’ve seen, going to a football match is the best thing. There might be people who have autism or anxiety who don’t feel comfortable going to matches though which is a shame because it’s really fun.’

Now he’s confident coming to matches at St Mary’s, it’s opening doors to other events Tom is interested in too. He and his parents went to some cricket games last year and Donna says it’s really important they can go to events like this together.

‘From my point of view, I've spent many years trying to encourage Tom to take part and get involved in things. For us to be able to go to something like a football game – it’s chaotic, noisy, crowded, there are people everywhere - and have him be part of something everybody else enjoys, it means a lot.’

It’s why accessibility at sports grounds is so important. Without efforts to improve access, we create barriers stopping members in our society from enjoying live sporting events. The Unite for Access campaign looks to shine a spotlight on its necessity.

The steps Tom has taken to further his love for football have seen him become a Season Ticket holder and a regular at St Mary’s. While he understands why someone in his position may be nervous about coming to their first game, he wanted to share this advice.

‘When you get told the match will be loud, you think it’s going to be really loud but try to think about the positives - you’ll have a brilliant time. Try to think about all the exciting stuff that’s going to happen, rather than focusing on the stuff that worries you. If you think like that, you’ll really enjoy it.’

Whether you’ve never been and you’re interested in coming to your first ever match at St Mary’s, or you’re a regular but feel you could benefit from an Access Wristband, we’d love to support you.

To find out more and learn how to get a wristband for the upcoming season, please contact Helen Goosey by emailing: [email protected].

See more from Red, White and You here.