Access to Sport: People with Colour Blindness — [Derek Twigg in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 15th March 2023.

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Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland) 9:30 am, 15th March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered access to sport for people with colour blindness.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Twigg. Today I am here to speak about one of the world’s most common inherited conditions. This condition affects 3 million people in the UK. In fact, it is so common that it is estimated that, in the House of Commons, 34 male MPs will have the condition, while 32 female MPs will be carriers. The condition is colour blindness, also known as colour vision deficiency. In the UK, it affects one in 12 boys and men and one in 200 girls and women.

What is colour blindness? It is a common misconception that people with colour blindness just confuse reds and greens. In truth, colour blindness comes in many different types and severities. Although red-green colour blindness is the most common form of the condition, it changes the way people affected view all sorts of colour combinations. Humans see colour through three types of specialised cone cells in the eyes. The cones absorb red, blue and green light. With inherited CVD, one cone type does not function normally; in 25% of cases, it does not function at all. Red-green colour blindness is the colloquial term for a defect in the red or green cones. It is an incurable condition, which neither improves nor deteriorates throughout life.

Last June, I held a drop-in event here in Parliament with the charity Colour Blind Awareness to give MPs the chance to discover what it is like to be colour blind. MPs had the opportunity to try on glasses that simulated the effects of the condition—with some rather entertaining results. They tested themselves by trying to sort a line of socks by colour while wearing the glasses. That was one event where our party political colours became a bit mixed-up! It was all to show the impact of colour blindness on those who have it. As well as the fun, we had academic researchers there to explain their work.

Jokes aside, this is a condition that, in the most severe instances, can have an adverse impact on the daily lives of those affected. Thanks to technology, we live in an increasingly colourful world. In classrooms, interactive smartboards have replaced old-fashioned blackboards. We use tablets and smartphones to entertain us and even to educate younger children. These things often use vibrant colours, and even the Government relied on that vibrant colour palette throughout the covid pandemic, giving public health information that relied on the use of bright graphics and colour indicators.

In an example even closer to home, the BBC’s 2015 general election coverage saw complaints upheld against it because of its inaccessibility to people with colour blindness. The issue was colour pairings: the Conservatives’ blue against the UK Independence party’s purple; Labour’s red against the Liberal Democrats’ orange; and the Lib Dems’ orange against the SNP’s yellow. As they were broadcast, those colour pairings were a nightmare for people with CVD. Lack of accessibility in a range of arenas excludes people with colour blindness from vital aspects of public life and can even hamper their future prospects. That is the sad truth, as people affected by CVD are often an afterthought when it comes to things like that. But it is so much more than that: people who are colour blind are being let down by the Equality Act 2010.

That brings us to the central topic of the debate, which is access to sport for people with colour blindness. The issue was first brought to my attention by a young person in my constituency. Marcus Wells has red-green colour blindness, and from a young age he has done great work to raise awareness of his experiences of grassroots football. At just 10 years old, in 2018, he told a film crew about how simple things such as the colours of balls and cones used in training affected his ability to take part. He said:

“I was really confused at times, why they’d put those cones out, because I thought everyone was seeing like me. Why wouldn’t they put different coloured cones down? It made me feel really upset and frustrated.”

Marcus’s coaches noticed that his enthusiasm and confidence would waver in some of his training sessions, despite his passion and love for the sport. It was only after his diagnosis that they realised this was due to changes in the colour of the kit and equipment being used. Thankfully, the local team were then able to work with Marcus and his family to make sure that they were meeting his needs, but many children with CVD are going undiagnosed, as screening is not currently required in schools or even at optician’s appointments, and that is leading to many promising young athletes getting lost in the system.

Eight per cent. of boys have colour blindness, but research done by Oxford Brookes University suggests that only 6% of men playing elite-level football have the condition. That translates to 25% of colour-blind players like Marcus dropping out due to a lack of accessibility in sport. I am pleased to say that the Football Association and UEFA have introduced colour blindness guidelines for football, while similar guidance has been published by World Rugby, but to date, there is no official published guidance for cricket, hockey or other sports, and even in football and rugby, most clubs and coaches remain unaware of the implications.

We know that encouraging children to take part in sport is a vital aspect of ensuring that they get a healthy start in life. Participating in a team sport is not only good for children’s physical health; it also supports their mental wellbeing and facilitates social inclusion. That is why it is vital that we work to make sure grassroots sport is as accessible as possible, including for people with colour blindness.

It is not only at grassroots level that we see barriers to inclusion. Professional sport is incredibly varied when it comes to its support of people affected by colour blindness, whether that is support for professional athletes or support for fans. Kit clashes are a particularly difficult issue for athletes and fans alike. As a north-east MP—albeit one who does not do football—I know only too well the pride and support that fans have for their respective clubs, with two great football teams in Newcastle and Sunderland battling several times over the years in the famous Tyne and Wear derby. Despite this being a momentous day for so many fans, it has often been a source of frustration for those who cannot join in on the occasion.

This is just as much of an issue on the pitch as it is in the stands. Former Newcastle United player James Perch has colour blindness, and he told the BBC:

“It was because of the stripes—black and white against red and white. I struggled to tell the difference. That game was definitely the toughest.”

He is not alone in finding kit clashes difficult. Nick Bignall, who previously played for Reading, has described how he would end up running into his own teammates or even tackling them. In football, like many sports, marginal gains are important. If we fail to accommodate players with colour blindness, it can hamper their performance and their chances of selection.

We also need to consider the impact on those who are not playing. Professional sport at every level relies on a team of officials to ensure that sport is fair and competitive. Referees are often the unsung heroes of sport, being largely a background figure until the odd moment of controversy brings them to the centre. Referees who suffer from CVD will often find it much more difficult to get the big calls right if we do nothing to support them. If it is difficult to tell the difference between the teams or the players, or even at times spot the ball, they will be hindered in being able to correctly officiate. David Pearson, a former rugby referee, described his experiences of officiating by saying:

“Try calling in an offside line, you’re an assistant referee, you get a line break, where’s the offside line? You just don’t call it. And of course, you get the whole crowd on your back going ‘he’s offside!’”

Meanwhile, for fans, the reality is that kit clashes are a constant issue. Ten premier league games in 2021 were played in kits that were difficult to distinguish for people affected by CVD. Clashes also affect one of the most anticipated games in the rugby union calendar: Wales versus Ireland in the Six Nations. In 2023, the Welsh Rugby Union took the decision to continue to play in red at home, despite knowing that this would prevent tens of thousands of colour-blind fans from enjoying the game.

Times are difficult for many people, and it is a testament to the love that many fans have for their chosen team that they continue to spend their wages on match tickets and pay per views. Those fans should not be let down by pictures that they are unable to watch. As one fan said on Twitter:

“I’d paid a fiver to watch the official stream and I may as well have thrown it out the window.”

Another said:

“I hang my head in despair when I can’t differentiate between the teams, and that can include the referee as well. This happens too often and it spoils my day—nobody seems to care.”

On top of that, there is the important issue of fan safety in stadiums—something we are all very much aware of. We need to ensure that fans with colour blindness are safe in stadiums, but emergency signage and equipment, including emergency evacuation plans, often use colours that prevent colour-blind people from being able to read them, or even make sure that they can identify a steward if needs be. In the UK, only two stadiums have been fully audited for colour blindness accessibility. That must change if we want to make sport a safe environment for all spectators.

I know that the Premier League and the FA have done a lot of work with the charity Colour Blind Awareness better to understand the issues, and I thank them for the briefings they sent me ahead of the debate. The Premier League now has software to identify kit clashes while the English Football League has changed its rules to allow clubs to switch home kits for away if that makes games easier to watch.

I am also aware of great staff, such as FA coach co-ordinator Ryan Davies, who are doing all they can to make the sport inclusive. Ryan suffers from colour blindness, and he attended our drop-in last year. However, the guidance being issued is unfortunately not always followed by clubs, and in many of our other sports it is non-existent, so what do we need?

First, we need cross-departmental working. The Minister needs to have conversations with the education and health teams, and to encourage routine screening of children for colour vision deficiency. Screening is quick and easy, and inexpensive to carry out—and it would help so many young players to identify the problems they are having and ask for accommodations. Outside sport, it would help to tackle the struggles that children with CVD often encounter in classroom settings and ensure they got access to the learning they deserve. It is important to remember that one pupil in every 30 in a co-ed classroom is likely to be colour blind. Teachers must be aware of the issues those children face and should receive training in how to accommodate them.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to have conversations with broadcasters and sports governing bodies to place guidelines for fixtures on a firmer footing. For example, broadcaster contracts could contain clauses allowing the control of content from competition organisers to avoid kit clashes. Broadcasters should also be aware of using TV graphics that might exclude colour-blind people.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that fans with colour blindness are safe in stadiums. I emphasise that emergency signage and equipment, including emergency evacuation plans, often use colours that prevent colour-blind people from being able to read them. I ask the Minister to consider what steps he can take to ensure that the safety issue is addressed by sports authorities. I suspect that he will likely put the responsibility back on the sports governing bodies, but the truth is that the current frameworks are still letting down fans, players and referees. Whether it is the colour of balls, pitch lines, kits or even allergen advice on stadium menus, let us make sure that sport is accessible to the millions of colour-blind people in the UK.

Finally, I ask the Minister to meet with me to discuss in more detail the issues faced by colour-blind people in sport and how we can address them. Most of all, let us make sure that sport, which is starting to address the real difficulties, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport work with other Departments to tackle the problems faced in education, health and all aspects of life by those with colour blindness.