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When stadiums are not disability friendly

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It is October 31, 2015. Hordes of spectators are thronging Kamuzu Stadium to witness another stimulating clash between Malawi football giants, Big Bullets and Silver Strikers, in a potential TNM Super League title decider.

One Evans Wilson is striving to crawl towards the pitch, but he struggles to get down the steps leading to the entrance of the pitch.

His physical disability, however, does not wane his hunger and desire to enjoy the beautiful game. He is among the few physically-challenged fans daring the hussle of watching domestic games.

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“It is hard for us to enter into the open stands because the entrance is not big enough. We only manage to get in through the Covered Stand. However, it is hard for us to get into the actual stands,” said Wilson, football passion evident in his eyes.

He laments that once they get into the stadium, they are told to leave their wheel chairs right at the entrance and then ‘crawl’ to the side of the pitch for an easy view of the action.

“The passage to the pitch is narrow therefore our wheelchairs cannot fit. We can’t also move through the steps with the wheel-chairs, therefore, we have to crawl towards the pitch. We wish the stadium management could adjust the passage or even provide transportation,” said Wilson, who is also a television and computer repairman at Blantyre Market.

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Wilson’s tale is just a tip of the iceberg of what the physically-challenged face in their quest to actively participate in football.

They are at risk of injury in case of violence.

“Most people with physical disabilities stopped coming to matches because of violence. We were at great risk and we are helpless when the police fired teargas, which leaves fans scrambling for the exits,” Evans said.

Zomba Community Centre manager, Richard Chipungu, said the venue was easily accessible to the physically-challenged.

Director of Sports in the Ministry of Sports and Culture, James Ndalama, said government was aware of the challenges the physically-challenged face to access stadiums.

“It is in our policy that during renovations of the stadiums, we should look at putting up structures that will help the physically-challenged to access easily the stadiums. We will do that with Mzuzu Stadium, Civo Stadium and other government-owned grounds,” he said.

Ndalama added that the soon-to-be-opened Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe has such facilities.

“The VIP and open stands have special entrances for the physically-challenged. Some places have lifts. There are also special parking spaces for them,” he said.

Fifa statutes recommend that football stadiums should have facilities to cater for the physically-challenged.

Federation of Disability Organisation in Malawi (Fedoma) executive director, Action Amos, said his organisation’s survey established that most sports infrastructure is not constructed in consideration of the rights of the physically-challenged.

“We did a study at the Bingu Stadium and we are happy to report that there will be use of lifts to ferry the physically-challenged, and there are also specially designated places to accommodate them,” he said.

“Wewillaudittheotherstadiums and make recommendations to Malawi National Council of Sports. The physically-challenged also have a right to enjoy these amenities.”

Amos added that they would also highlight the issue during the month they remember rights of the physically-challenged to lobby for policy implementation.

Ministry of Sports spokesperson, Christopher Mbukwa, confirmed that the Sports Act and Sports Policy recommend that sports facilities should be friendly to the physically-challenged.

“But, the problem is that the old facilities were not constructed in such a way. We want to modify them so that they should cater for the physically- challenged,” he said.

“There are several challenges that may slow down the process. There are issues of funding and others. In the short-term, we want to renovate parts of Kamuzu Stadium and the long-term plan is that every new stadium should have facilities that can accommodate the physically-challenged,” he said.

Football Association of Malawi Fam) competitions manager, Gomezgani Zakazaka, said they consider everybody when arranging matches.

“We don’t own stadiums, but our policy is to make football matches accessible to everyone. Most of the times the physically-challenged are accommodated at the VIP stand even if they have open stand tickets. Stewards also ensures their safety,” he said.

Sulom general secretary, Williams Banda, echoed Zakazaka’s sentiments, stating that their role is limited when it comes to advancing rights of the physically-challenged.

“The major responsibility is with ground owners. But we always try to accommodate everybody. Since the physically challenged can’t access the open stands, we accommodate them at the VIP stands. It is easy in Lilongwe, but hard at the other stadiums,” he said.

While the country waits for long-term solutions to the problem, the number of the physically-challenged people at stadiums keeps declining.

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