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Two Hockey Fans Want To Change How The NHL Approaches Accessibility

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Like so many people in the disabled community, Boston hockey fans Jill Murphy and Chanel Keenan met on Twitter. They realized immediately that not only do they both support the Boston Bruins, but they also face similar barriers at the rink. They both have trouble accessing concession stands and often need to ask others to get things for them; they can’t buy tickets online and instead use a phone reservation system to obtain accessible seating. They also both worry about the high price of tickets — a problem for many but one that’s of particular concern to disabled fans, who may have less money to spend on leisure.

As their friendship blossomed, the two suspected that other disabled hockey fans were going through the same thing they were, so they decided to ask. The duo launched a survey about accessibility within the NHL, with the goal of collecting cold, hard data to empower leaguewide change. 

“We were both frustrated and wanted to see how we could best potentially impact change moving forward,” Murphy said. “And so, we figured, the best way would be to create a survey that would maybe touch on how other people are impacted by attending the game.”

Keenan, who works part-time as an intersectionality consultant for the Seattle Kraken, said the pandemic-induced limitations placed on in-person advocacy meant that digital data gathering was the next logical step.

“I was feeling pretty stagnant on what I could do to make some sort of impact,” she said. “And I think at the time, too, I was trying to figure out, you know, how can I change something within hockey that is absent as far as focusing and highlighting inaccessibility?”

After a digital meeting between the two of them in June 2020, Murphy began building the survey questions. The goal was to focus on long-form answers and qualitative experiences rather than data that points to an issue without acknowledging the intricacies of access concerns. The survey asks for some demographic information and then dives into questions on location, type of disability, tickets and game-day experience, resources and accommodations respondents would like to see, and the accessibility of restrooms, among a host of others. Most questions include a 1-5 rating scales along with a space for people to respond with their own personal stories. 

The survey is meant not only for disabled fans themselves, but also their parents, friends and companions — a community term for people who attend alongside a disabled fan to support them in whatever way they need.

Keenan tweeted one survey response that points to the experience of some disabled fans.

“She [the fan] doesn’t feel valued by the NHL or our local team. Why should she pay hundreds of dollars to be hassled and made to feel worth less than other people and have a bad experience? I just feel awful that as her condition has slowly worsened, it has also robbed her of one of her favorite experiences: attending an NHL game and forgetting about life’s problems for a few hours.”

The initial run of the survey got 16 responses, but the duo re-upped their promotion last fall to try and capture more feedback — partially because Keenan had gained a much larger following after she began working with the NHL’s latest expansion team. They’ve currently received a total of 45 responses. Much of the feedback mirrors the issues that Keenan and Murphy themselves face when they want to attend a local game: access to tickets, cost and finding a game-day routine that works. Murphy said those persistent issues require urgent action by the NHL.

“The consistent theme is that we are not alone and that there are challenges that people are facing. And right now, there just doesn’t seem to be that much being done to address these issues in the NHL, despite this whole campaign for “hockey is for everyone.” It seems that disabled individuals are always an afterthought and are never included in any of these marketing campaigns.”

Keenan has met with Kim Davis — the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — but she has concerns that leagues of the NHL’s scale are interested in offering solutions only if those affected number in the thousands.

In an emailed response, a representative of the NHL did not comment on what level of engagement would be required for a survey of this type to garner a reaction, instead focusing on the local jurisdictions in which each team operates: “As it relates to building accessibility and seating, that is based on local laws and regulations.”

The league also pointed to a number of initiatives related to sled hockey, sensory friendly work being done in Detroit and Nashville, and a Philadelphia area program aimed at hockey participation among military veterans. 

Both Keenan and Murray said that it’s not a question of whether there are access issues, but rather it’s an issue of scale. Neither feel that they currently have the platform to receive thousands of responses, and that, in turn, limits how seriously large-scale organizations may be willing to take the disabled community’s concerns. As Keenan noted, many of the NHL’s arenas are also used by NBA teams. That interconnectedness points to an issue across professional sports. 

Indeed, the NHL isn’t the only league where accessibility concerns have been identified. The most recent edition of an annual survey distributed by the U.K. charity Level Playing Field found that 32 percent of the 1,408 British responses — most of whom were drawing on their experiences as soccer fans — listed physical access as a barrier. Ticket availability and cost, two of Keenan and Murphy’s main concerns, came in at 17 and 19 percent, respectively, in the British survey. 

Respondents to Keenan and Murphy’s survey are looking for more financial accessibility, an easier system to access tickets, and more accessible seating to come from the NHL. It’s feedback that Murphy said can only come from a fan who has experienced being left out. 

“I think you really need to have a disabled fan perspective in order to truly capture the challenges,” Murphy said. “You can’t expect an able-bodied person to understand what we go through because they’re just literally not going through the same experiences as us.”

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