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Watford FC opens its arms to people with learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities can feel a sense of connection by going to football matches, especially at clubs that welcome them creatively

People with learning disabilities can feel a sense of connection by going to football matches, especially at clubs that welcome them creatively

Picture shows the view from inside the sensory room at Watford FC for people with learning disabilities and autism
View from the sensory room at Watford FC for people with learning disabilities
and autism Picture: Watford FC

After watching England’s dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the 2018 World Cup, TV presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker tweeted: ‘Football. There is nothing like it. Nothing.’

Part of the joy of that moment was the collective feeling that people in England shared, the sense we were all part of something. I believe this is among the reasons we go to football matches: the bond with the team we support and the connection we feel.

Our national sport has been called the people’s game, but what about those with learning disabilities and autism? We know that many in this group often feel like outsiders with regard to the rest of society. And, frankly, they are often treated like that. So can football help?

I have met many people with a learning disability who have a real love for football and who go to games come rain or shine.

We also know there is an extraordinary amount of money in football. But I am never clear how much of that money is channelled back into the communities that support the teams.

Engaging people with learning disabilities and autism

A boy inside the sensory room at Watford FC
A boy inside the sensory room
Picture: Watford FC

So I was interested to see the impressive way in which Watford Football Club has engaged with people with learning disabilities and autism. The club has set up a sensory room, because it is well-known that people in this group may struggle with sensory issues. That is why some supermarkets and cinemas, for example, set aside areas exclusively for those with learning disabilities and autism.

The first thing that strikes you about Watford’s sensory room is its prominent location, in a corner of the stadium above the away fans. Its windows have Watford flags on them, which offer privacy to those within but still allow an excellent view of the pitch. Outside, above the windows, the space is marked ‘Sensory room’.

While there is space to move about in the room, capacity is limited to six people plus their supporters, and there is a smaller Snoezelen room, a multisensory environment, behind the viewing area.

‘It helps people feel they are part of the community’

There are many thoughtful touches. For example, the entrance to the room is separate from the main supporters’ entrance. People are allowed to bring their own food. There is a switch that can be used to increase or decrease the sound of the stadium, and the lighting in the room is controlled in the same way.

Ticket costs are low for those who use the room, and their supporters do not pay. And there is a seating area outside so people can join the general supporters if they wish to.

I believe in an adequately funded NHS learning disability service that takes a lead on the nation’s mental health. But here we have two sectors, one cash-rich and the other chronically underfunded. The NHS needs support from other sectors that can respond creatively, and Watford proves that football clubs can think creatively.

It is time more football teams applied this sort of thinking to people with learning disabilities. This is important for many reasons, not least because it helps people feel they are part of the community. I hope others can follow Watford’s lead.


David O’Driscoll wants other football clubs to follow Watford’s leadDavid O’Driscoll is visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England

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