As one of the rare wheelchair-bound members of New Zealand’s rugby media pack, it’s been an interesting experience thus far and on a few examples I’ve had to “drive my way in” to get those all-important quotes on record.
The key is that I be up front and honest about the disability and access requirements right from the start. Not to my fellow reporters, but to the media managers.
I do this when I inquire about an interview possibility, attend a game, and especially filling out application forms for accreditation. Questions like “is the venue wheelchair accessible?” and “will my support worker be able to attend with me?” are some of the ones I ask.
Ahead of my first year covering Super Rugby as part of the accredited media, I had the conversation with a media manager about all this. They told me to fill out two application forms, but the prior conversation had been important just to establish why I needed a support worker with me in the media room at all times. The reason for someone being there isn’t just so they “can get into the game for free” as one person put it, but it’s because I actually need someone (who is paid by me) to help me with getting things in and out of my bag, et cetera.
In general, other reporters have always been greatly welcoming and inclusive toward me.
I’ve had some people jokingly say that I “played the wheelchair card” to get media access with rugby teams. Me stating my access issues, or the need for a support worker to attend with me, is just a necessity so that I can perform to my very best ability.
Most media rooms I’ve seen are accessible to wheelchairs, but there have been examples of venues that can’t stake the same claim.
One such example of this is Rotorua International Stadium. The Chiefs had shifted one of their home games to this venue in 2015. I signalled my interest to work at the game, but after a few inquiries I learnt that the media room was not wheelchair accessible. I thought that would be that and I’d be working on my laptop from home. Then I got a phone call, and it was the Chiefs media manager who told me that they were going to setup a table for me on the field.
“On the field!”, I thought. So there I was, field side with my laptop setup for the Chiefs match in 2015. I’ll never forget seeing Augustine Pulu dive over the try line right in front of me that night, not the only moment that I almost forgot I was there to work as a journalist, not a fan.
It gets a little bit different when it comes to covering International rugby though.
First time in a media scrum with All Blacks captain Kieran Read; I was pushed to the back, ironically after starting out near the front after the media manager had given me earlier warning of the interviews beginning. Reporters pushed their way past me, microphones and cameras all but blurred my vision of the All Black skipper. Thankfully, one reporter noticed my difficulty and kindly said he would send through his audio so that I could get on with writing my story.
The restrictions about bringing a support worker in are also slightly trickier. As I eluded to earlier, it’s very important that I have the conversation with the media managers involved beforehand.
Looking outside of the reporting work; I certainly think that a lot can be done to improve the match experience for disabled patrons. Not just physically disabled, but also those who are visually impaired. I know a man who is partially sighted and he struggles getting to and from his seat. He pays hundreds of dollars a year paying a yearly membership – and while he enjoys the games themselves – the experience before and after is often less than pleasant. It would also help if the accessible seating for wheelchair users at games was situated in a way that vision of the field wouldn’t be impaired when others in the crowd stand up as a try is scored.