Never watch alone
Phil Clarke explains a new scheme designed to help supporters with learning difficulties enjoy rugby league.
Last Updated: 21/10/09 5:38pm
Rugby League is one of the most innovative sports in the world, and not just on the field.
The RESPECT campaign that we launched in 2005 has now been adopted in football and is even used by UEFA in their Champions League tournament promotions. It's about giving Respect to everyone in the game.
The 'Never Watch Alone' initiative was launched in Wigan this year and they have asked me to act as the Ambassador to promote this worthwhile project in partnership with the National Association of Disabled Supporters, Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic.
The aim is to help supporters with a learning disability to attend matches alongside their fellow supporters.
This pioneering project uses a network of 'buddies' to enable those supporters with a learning disability to go to games, not with a professional carer but with a friend, a like-minded fan who shares their passions as well as the camaraderie, socialising before and after the game.
Fans of the Warriors and Lactics are being asked to sign up as 'buddies' to the Never Watch Alone Initiative.
Buddies don't need experience; on-going guidance, support and responsibility will be handled by the professionals overseeing the initiative. You just need to be 18 years or older and have a passion for your sport.
There are loads of benefits, obviously it helps integrate those with learning difficulties into the wider community and connects supporters.
It also breaks down many barriers and reduces social exclusion and ultimately strengthens the local community. More than anything, it makes it possible for somebody who otherwise might not have been able to go to a match to shout for their team.
The initiative has already received support from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Andy Burnham said: "A shared passion for sport unites people from all backgrounds and this is what the Never Watch Alone Initiative is all about.
"It is a fantastic initiative and I commend Wigan Learning Disability Partnership Board, the National Association of Disabled Supporters, Wigan Athletic Football Club and Wigan Warriors Rugby League Club for coming together to take this forward.
"I am sure it will prove a fulfilling experience for everyone involved and will bring about many lasting friendships."
The ultimate aim is to enable people with learning disabilities to lead full, purposeful lives in their communities and to develop a range of friendships, activities and relationships.
This is a brilliantly simple idea which is transferable across countries and disability groups. The framework is easily duplicated at other rugby league clubs and other sports in the UK.
In fact the idea has already been presented at European Football Fans Congress in Hamburg, Germany in July this year to delegates from 29 different countries representing two million fans across Europe.
It's the first initiative of its kind in Europe in assisting people with learning disabilities to attend matches with their fellow supporters.
A representative from a Baltic nation thought that the idea sounded like 'science fiction' - but we're making it reality.
Supporting a team is a bit like being a real life member of a soap opera, and it's much better when you're able to share the magic moments with like-minded fans.
Just as an experienced player often helps to bring along another member of the squad, this initiative encourages fans to do the same.
If you're a Wigan fan, you can get involved now by contacting NWAI co-ordinator Terry Mann in 01942-776579 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you follow a different team and think that it's a great initiative, get hold of Sarah Williams at the RFL and ask her to promote the idea across the game.