By Eleanor Wilson
Nikki Gould and Ace Bryans’ relationship is not dissimilar to many sister-brother duos.
Much of their dynamic is built on teasing and poking fun at each other – particularly when it comes to sport.
Nikki supports Carlton in the AFL, while Ace is a diehard Brisbane Lions fan, and it’s fair to say they quite enjoy “giving each other hell” when their teams play.
But the Pakenham woman’s undeniable love for her younger brother is also clear- so much so that she has embarked on a mission to campaign for a more equal rights for her brother and others like him.
Narre Warren resident Ace lives with several disabilities that cause him to be wheelchair bound.
Dystonia causes him painful, involuntary muscle contractions, while Glutaric Aciduria type 1, a rare inherited metabolic disorder, causes him severe cognitive dysfunction.
The first Australian baby to be formally diagnosed with GA1, Ace was given a life expectancy of three years. He is now 22 years old and loves nothing more than his footy team.
But when it comes to cheering on his team in person, accessibility becomes a problem for the family.
“The best thing about attending the footy, aside from the atmosphere, is the ability to banter with friends and family when your teams verse each other,” Nikki said.
“I’ve been to a few games with my brother, but we’ve never been allowed to sit next to each other.”
The seating plan at many sporting and entertainment venues, such as the MCG, are often restricted for spectators with disabilities.
Accessible seats are located at the back of each seating bay and set up to account for one companion or ‘carer seat’ per wheelchair accessible space.
This means when Nikki and Ace go to the football with their family, they are often separated. Ace said he’d love the chance to pick on his sister when her team is losing, but can’t because they are unable to sit together.
At best, Nikki said she can sometimes find a seat near her brother, so that they can at least exchange glances at exciting points throughout the match.
“I think the way they view people that need accessible seating is that [the seating] is designed to have a carer accompanying them. You might have a teenager with a large group of mates who all go to the footy together, but if one of them needs accessible seating, they’re left on their own.”
Wheelchair seating at the MCG can only be booked via the Wheelchair Seating and Accessible Seating booking line.
“For my brother, a phone call isn’t something he can do, but if tickets were available online he could book that.”
For Ace, he said he feels unheard and dismissed when it comes speaking up about the issue.
“I’m not a person who will say anything about it because people will just be like ‘oh whatever’,” he said.
Frustrated by the lack of accessibility for patrons with a disability like her brother led Nikki to create a petition to raise awareness about the issue and implore stakeholders to make a change.
“It’s not just about the football and just about me and my brother, it’s about kind of creating a voice loud enough to make people aware it is happening,” Nikki said.
“It is discriminating and it’s not providing equal opportunity and access…which in this day and age shouldn’t be happening, but it really is.”
Her change.org petition – Equality for ALL spectators at the footy! Accessible seating & ticket rights for EVERYONE! – has garnered 810 signatures and endless comments of individuals sharing their own experiences with accessibility.
Nicki said her aim is to make the general public more aware of the issue, which she says also exists at many other sporting and entertainment venues.
Since starting the petition, Ace and Nikki have been contacted by several parties, including the MCG, 7AFL ticketing team, Carlton Football Club and the Brisbane Lions to offer their support and involvement in improving accessibility for spectators with a disability.
In a statement, a Ticketek spokesperson said the company is selling wheelchair seating online as part of a pilot with venue partners and is developing a broader digital solution to improve the accessibility of ticket purchasing.
“Throughout this process, we are actively engaged in dialogue with advocacy groups and our venue, promoter, and sporting code partners to work towards better solutions to ensure people with accessible requirements have the same purchasing experience as any other ticket buyer,” the spokesperson said.
“Like all large customer facing businesses, we are experiencing a much higher than normal volume of calls to our call centres at present as a result of events being postponed, cancelled and rescheduled due to COVID and our people are working around the clock to respond to customers. We apologise if any customers have experienced a long wait time.”
The MCG and AFL were contacted for comment, but did not respond by deadline.
If you would like to sign the petition, head to bit.ly/3HEe1he