Interview with Alina Novozhilova, Zenit's disability access officer

Zenit are attempting to be one of the world's leading clubs when it comes to access and services for our disabled supporters and we've spoken to Alina Novozhilova, the woman in charge of overseeing that project to see how the club are getting on with this aim.
Interview with Alina Novozhilova, Zenit's disability access officer

Alina with Sergei Semak at this summer's World Cup.

Hi Alina, you are Zenit’s Disability Access Officer, a wheelchair user and in charge of the club’s service’s for disabled fans. Can you tell us about your role with the club?

Hello! My duties are to make our disable fans’ visit to Zenit home matches and Stadium St. Petersburg as comfortable as possible. We try to create the most comfortable conditions we can for our fans to attend the match with as few difficulties as possible and I am in charge of this. I also oversee the distribution of tickets and make sure all the services we have at Stadium St. Petersburg are also available to fans with all different levels of disabilities. I generally just try to think of everything involved in the matchday experience, from how our disabled supporters travel to the stadium right through to the final whistle and when they have left the stadium and are making their way home.

What have Zenit done to make the stadium and the club more accessible for disabled fans?

We have a brand new stadium, so we have no issues for fans in wheelchairs accessing all parts of the stadium, we have ramps, wide corridors, accessible toilets and many large lifts. But the arena is of quite a complex design and very large, there are long distances between arriving and getting to your seat and this can be difficult for fans who have mobility issues or the elderly. To deal with this, we have specially trained staff that help transport fans with special requirements to their seats from all areas of the stadium, they also help people not get lost as we have so many floors and it’s so big! This season we have employed a professional commentator (who worked at the World Cup) especially for visually impaired fans and we provide live match audio description throughout the match. 

Zenit are actively working in this direction and we are constantly looking at all possible new innovations in this area to improve the stadium and the matchday experience. I am a contact for our disabled fans and their voice within the club. I am also proud to say that we often invite people with disabilities, who may never have been to a Zenit game before, to come to the match as our guests.

What’s the biggest problems disabled fans have in supporting and getting involved in football in Russia?

The most obvious problem is the lack of an accessible environment and not just at football grounds, but in everyday life. Some disabled people have trouble even leaving their homes because of this. Many older stadiums are inaccessible for fans with disabilities and I know that clubs are trying to solve this issue, but because of the complexity of these older stadiums, it has not always worked out so well. There is a lot more for us all to do.

What would you like to see done in football in Russia and indeed across the world for disabled supporters?

I would like all stadiums to have wheelchair areas with good visibility, for there to be disabled parking nearby, accessible bathrooms too. It would be great if all clubs could provide audio descriptive commentary for fans with visual impairment and matchday programmes and other club printed materials in Braille. At Zenit we are looking at aids for hearing impaired fans to help them enjoy the match and it would be great for stadiums to have sensory rooms and special areas for fans with severe disabilities with changing facilities.

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The pitch view from the disabled seating at Stadium St. Petersburg.

Overall is the football world going in the right direction in this area or is progress coming along too slowly?

In general, there is progress and many football clubs are working hard in this direction, but it is important that they listen to the opinion of the fans in this matter.

Are there any leaders in services for disabled supporters, either in football or in other sports, from which we could learn?

There is no ideal stadium for disabled fans sadly, there are different clubs around the world in which certain aspects are better than others, but I can’t tell you a perfect club that we can emulate. There are organisations like CAFÉ who help push for disabled fans’ rights internationally. I try to listen to the fans who go to our games and implement what they think and tell me. We have many disabled fans who go to every home game and do not miss a match, some even attend away matches, but this is much more difficult for them, but I would like this to happen more often. Many Zenit supporters who use wheelchairs are able to get to away fixtures in Moscow for example and it is always great to see them at our games, both home and especially away.

What are your hopes for the future for disabled football supporters?

I would like as many fans as possible with disabilities to come to Stadium St. Petersburg and that they enjoy being in the stands and the whole matchday experience. I think that at the moment, our stadium is one of the best in the world in terms of accessibility and services for disabled supporters, but the club and I are always looking at ways to do more.

If you are a disabled fan and want to come and watch a match, or want more information on Zenit’s services for fans with disabilities you can get in touch via the phone on +7 812 244-88-88  or E-mail on mgn@fc-zenit.ru.