For most people, the hardest part about attending a big sporting event or concert is getting a ticket.

But for people living with a disability, knowing whether an event is accessible can be the difference between trying to get a ticket, or not bothering.

"If it's not advertised as an accessible and inclusive event, then a lot of us don't end up going," said disability advocate Madison Heady. 

"Sometimes the fear and the anxiety of that event not being accessible outweighs the whole experience."

"When you live with a disability, you're always thinking about your inclusive needs and if that event or venue doesn't have your access needs, then the stress of that particular part ends up consuming you."

Ms Heady was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, and has become an advocate and consultant with Activ Foundation, which has signed a three-year charity partnership with Optus Stadium.

"My movements are shaky, uncontrollable and my signals from my brain to my body parts are slower," the 22-year old said.

She often takes her own sensory kit to events, in case they don't cater to her needs.

"It involves tools so that when a person is getting overstimulated and overwhelmed, they can have something to take their mind off what's going on around them and making them feel unsettled."

Making venues and events more accessible and inclusive has been a trend for some time, with numerous big stadiums across Australia — such as the MCG and SCG, as well as Perth Arena — building sensory or quiet rooms for patrons who need to remove themselves from the crowd.

Optus Stadium is currently retro-fitting a space to make a permanent sensory room, which it hopes will be up and running for the start of the 2024 AFL season.

"There's an increasing awareness of the rights of people with disabilities to be able to attend and enjoy an event like anybody else," Optus Stadium CEO Mike McKenna said.

"So being able to build in sufficient numbers of spaces for those people and be able to build accessibility right from when they get on the train or the bus to get here, right through to sitting down in their seat, going to food and beverage outlets, going to the bathrooms, all those things need to be just as accessible."

"The challenge is if you have a stadium already built and you want to retrospectively fit that stuff out, it's not easy to do.

"But it's the right thing to do."

Fremantle the driving force

In 2021, the Fremantle Dockers surveyed its members, and the feedback was clear: a space was needed for fans to be able to remove themselves from the crowd.

"We just started thinking, 'how would we do it? How do we go about it?'," said Donna Rendell, general manager of the clubs' community arm, the Purple Hands Foundation.

"There wasn't a permanent space available at that stage. So we got together with Autism WA and started thinking about the logistics of how we would do something like that.

"Lots of noise and lots of people and different sounds and sirens and that can be quite overwhelming for some people.

"Some people had never been to a game of football because they didn't know how their child might react."

The Foundation trialled a sensory room in a converted parenting room at Optus Stadium for six games in 2022, and the entirety of the 2023 campaign thanks to uLaunch powered by Angus Knight.


The room was a success, often full during matches as fans became aware it was there.

"Some families used it every week, there was a couple of families that had never been to the football," Rendell said.

"Some would come just to have a bit of a look to know that it was there. And that kept them calm as well, just knowing if I need to find a quiet space, then I can.

"We thought if we could show that it works and that it was needed, and that it would be well utilised, then how could we not have a permanent space for people."

Facilities not the only solution

While making spaces available for those requiring them is a step forward, Heady says its not the only thing venues and events can do to increase their accessibility.

"One thing that stood out to me is staff being approachable, being taught how to listen," she said.

"Being able to help in a way that helps people with disabilities have an enjoyable experience.

"What work's well for me, might not work well for someone else with a disability.

"Talk to the individual, find out what they need, and assist them in getting that so they can have the most enjoyable experience they can."

Mike Heath is the CEO of Activ, and said raising awareness that facilities are available will encourage people with disabilities to consider attending events.

"So many of our people are sports mad. They'd love to be able to come," he said.

"Quite often, we find our people, they're in their houses, and they don't really think about the opportunity to come to something like this [stadium], because they think there are too many difficulties in doing that.

"It [having facilities] is a great first step, but I think there is so much more that can be done."