How AccessiMingos Are Making the Supporter Experience More Inclusive For All Fans
Soccer Is For Everyone
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The checklist that Tyler Engel, Brian Messman and Bill Schultz, who use wheelchairs, have to run through in their heads, when entering a new place, is astounding.
Can I see? Can I hear? Can I physically get to this space? Where are the entrances? Are there tripping hazards?
Each question, or the uncertainty around the answer, throws up another wall, another barrier.
But Engel, Messman and Schultz are trying to create one less place where they have to feel that uncertainty, and are on a mission to tear those barriers down.
They’re doing this through AccessiMingos, an all-inclusive Forward Madison supporters group, dedicated to creating a welcoming environment for Forward Madison’s disabled supporters.
“Anybody that gets supporter culture understands what a welcoming space that is. If we can get people there to experience it, and that’s what AccessiMingos want to do, then that’s more enjoyment and more growth for that space for everybody,” said Schultz.
Engel, Messman and Schultz became passionate about the game through different avenues. For Messman, it was through a childhood of playing the game. For Schultz, it was watching Manchester United matches as a kid. For Engel, it was through playing power soccer and bonding with several of his caregivers from around the world who loved the sport.
But although their journeys followed different paths, they all converged in the same place, in the Flock End of Breese Stevens Field, on the left hand side of the goal where they’ve spent countless games cheering on their club.
“One of the first things I heard when I moved back to Madison is that they’re getting a team,” said Messman. “I’m like, ‘I am getting on that bandwagon, getting season tickets. I don’t know anybody, but I’m going.’ I showed up to that first game, not knowing anybody, just took a chance and got out there, and met a whole bunch of great people, including these two guys. It’s been a ride ever since.”
It can be intimidating for anyone to attend their first match alone, disability or not. The AccessiMingos know this, and want to make it easier for people with disabilities to feel comfortable showing up.
“I was really lucky that I had Tyler, who was like, ‘Dude, we’re gonna go do this, and it’s gonna be awesome,’” said Schultz. “I knew at least that I had Tyler, and he had connected with some of the other Flock folks before we went out there. I remember that first game, knowing which entrance to even enter the stadium was a thing.”
“Not knowing people when you go to a game can make you be hesitant,” said Messman. “When you look at some supporters groups, and they’re jumping around and all that stuff, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I feel safe being in the supporters section?’ The Flock has been very supportive, and I can pretty much assume that these guys, like me, have felt very safe in that Flock End.
“We as physically disabled folks don’t know what to expect,” Schultz said. “Just to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re making it work, we’re going to do everything we can to make it work for you’ is kind of why we’re trying to do this.”
Inclusion is a keystone in many supporters groups and club philosophies. But to put in that work consistently is rare. AccessiMingos consider themselves lucky to have a club and a supporters collective that listens and acts.
With the launch of the AccessiMingos, Forward Madison committed to making several improvements to Breese Stevens Field, including an alternative path to the concession stands, complimentary tickets for caregivers, and a ramp to the Flock End merch stand.
The commitment is even more prevalent in the Forward Madison umbrella supporters collective, The Flock. From ensuring that their event locations can accommodate disabled supporters, to helping fans in wheelchairs get across Breese Stevens’ turf field during the supporters’ march, the group’s support has been unwavering.
“Everyone is super cool, super accepting,” said Engel.
“We have a club and a supporters group, that are beyond supportive,” said Schultz.
Leveraging this support, and the desire to bring more disabled fans closer to the beautiful game is what sparked the idea for AccessiMingos.
After going back and forth about it, and with a little nudge from Flock president Andrew Schmidt, the AccessiMingos officially launched on March 11th.
“We weren’t going to launch,” said Schultz. “Andrew was kind of like, ‘Let’s get this going, now is the time.’ He was kind of saying, ‘You guys got enough, right? You’ve got a social media account, you’ve got a mission, an objective, the season starts in a couple months, what are we waiting for?’ I think that was the catalyst to kind of jump in.”
The group announced their arrival to the supporters scene, dropped a new piece of merch (with 50% of proceeds going to Wisconsin Warriors), and the positive feedback began to flood in.
Just a few days later, supporters from Charlotte FC and Minnesota United launched their own disabled supporters groups, crediting AccessiMingos for helping to lead the way.
“I thought, ‘Hey, this is cool, we can make things a little more accessible, bring in other disabled fans, and maybe add a few more people to show up and support the club’,” said Engel. “I had no idea that people would be reaching out as much as they are right now, saying ‘Can we talk to you about this? We want to do this, what do we need to do?’ None of that crossed my mind.”
But maybe the biggest gift that the AccessiMingos are discovering, is that they still have so much to learn about other disabilities beyond their own, and are excited to bring even more people into the fold of Forward Madison.
“One of the coolest things that’s happened through all of the attention is that we’re getting is that we’re hearing from other people that have different disabilities and different experiences, and they’re saying, ‘What about this? What about this?’ Our list keeps getting longer. For a Division 3 American side to have a supporters group that’s able to think about these things, and have a club that’s willing to have these conversations, it’s a pretty cool thing,” said Schultz.
“We keep saying we never expected this,” said Messman. “When I reached out to these guys, and we started talking about it, I guess my thought was ‘We’re just going to be a supporters group, we’re made up of people with disabilities who want to support the club. My field of thinking was very narrow at the time, and it’s gotten bigger and it’s exciting and kind of scary at the same time. But I can’t wait to see where this goes, and if we can help out disabled supporters in the Madison area, I am so excited about that. If we can collaborate with other clubs, maybe they have ideas that we haven’t thought about, and maybe we have ideas they haven’t. So I’m really excited about that.”
Schultz echoes that sentiment. “We don't know where this can go, but it's going to go somewhere pretty cool.”