River Sin Barreras, A Storied Soccer Club Becomes A Model For Disability Inclusion
The River Plate sports club in the Núñez area of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is home to many sports, but renowned for its decorated professional football club, which is also making a name for itself for its inclusive policies.
For 20 years, the River Plate sports club in Núñez, Buenos Aires, Argentina has been working towards equal participation for disabled members and others. Their journey has been helped by cutting-edge strategies in social and sports inclusion, and improvements in accessibility.
When Tomás was 8 years old in 2013, he toured River's facilities with his father, Juan Pablo Chiappe. Both are fans and members of the Núñez club and, that day, a sign at an office caught their attention: "River sin Barreras" (River without Barriers). Tomás has a chromosomal duplication that can manifest itself similarly to autism. Until coming across that office, he had not been able to actively participate in the life of the club about which he was so passionate.
"We knocked on the door out of curiosity, and Liliana Plandolit, the former president of the club's Commission for the Integration of People with Disabilities — River sin Barreras — warmly opened the doors and asked us, earnestly, what Tomi would like to do at the club," Chiappe Sr. recalls.
They got Tomás involved in some of the club's activities and, with adjustments and support from River sin Barreras, he got hooked on tennis. Tomás also began participating in the Tu Lugar en el Monumental ("Your place at Monumental") Program, which is named after the River Plate’s stadium. With the program, disabled club members get a free season ticket and can go with a companion to every match.
A social model
Liliana Plandolit is the creator and founder of River's Commission for the Integration of People with Disabilities. She is a River Plate fan, and mother of María Inés, who has intellectual disabilities. Since 2003, together with the families of other members with disabilities, she began to help the club facilitate their children’s participation.
Difficulties are often not connected to their own disability, but rather to the social barriers.
From that moment on, River Plate embraced the social model of disability, which considers the main disabling factor to be the social barriers a person faces, rather than the direct consequence of their condition.
"A substantial part of the difficulties and disadvantages that people with disabilities face are not connected to their own disability, but rather to the social barriers that restrict their participation in the community," explains Plandolit.
"Our goal has always been to create spaces in which equal rights and opportunities are achieved, so that they can participate in club life, improving their quality of life," adds Plandolit, who headed the Commission for the Integration of People with Disabilities between 2013 and 2021 and is its current vice-president. "At River, we focus on three areas of work: socio-sportive inclusion; physical, cognitive and sensory accessibility, and raising awareness and sensitivity regarding inclusive processes."
Khaleb Manzur, 20, uses a wheelchair and is a member of the wheelchair futsal team — a sport similar to football played with a smaller ball and on a hard surface. Growing up as a member of River, he has watched the club's inclusive process evolve.
"Historically, River has been a pioneer in inclusive initiatives. But at the beginning it had a more assistance-oriented role, focusing on providing match tickets for matches and little else. Today, the committee helps integrate disabled members into club life," he explains.
He has been working with the committee since last year and has been a formal member since May 2023. "We carry out activities such as relaxed movie screenings (screenings carried out in a way that allows people with autism to enjoy the activity), awareness-raising talks or improvements in the stadium's accessibility."
An inclusive club
"Together, we have designed an inclusive club," summarizes Plandolit. As with Tomás, at River sin Barreras has listened to its disabled members, finding out what activities they wanted to do at the club and arranging the necessary adjustments and support in each case. Over the years, more and more adapted sports have been added, even at the federal level, such as indoor football for the blind or swimming with adaptations for people with disabilities.
"Today, the club, with an inclusive and accessible approach, is adding sports, cultural and recreational activities for people with disabilities," says Martín Giovo, current president of River sin Barreras.
Chiappe says that although Tomi no longer plays tennis, he is involved in a number of activities. Some are awareness-raising, as part of River sin Barreras, while others are social and sporting. "We use the cafeteria, garden and other social areas. In addition, we have organized sports days with Tomi's football group of children with disabilities, with whom he plays." His father says that, thanks to River's various inclusion programs, today the club "Plays an important role in Tomi's life."
River Plate's inclusive teams.
Making Monumental more accessible
The first inclusive measures at the club were aimed at ensuring that members with disabilities could watch River's matches. "When we started, wheelchair users watched the games from behind the goals. We managed to get a designated sector with wheelchair priority in the Belgrano tribune, between the lower and middle tiers," says Plandolit. "In addition, we set up a parking lot near the entrance door, external signage and adapted toilets," he says. He says that strong support from the leadership during Rodolfo D'Onofrio's tenure as president of the club from 2013 to 2021 was key to the improvements in infrastructure.
River set up the registration system Tu Lugar en el Monumental, in which certain season tickets were allocated with priority for disabled members at no cost for the disabled member or for their accompanier. Today, 210 members with disabilities participate in the stadium access program, with spaces in the Belgrano Baja, Sívori Media and Centenario Baja stands.
"This initiative contributes to the autonomy of people with disabilities. It is a cutting-edge strategy; almost no club has something like this," analyzes Nicolás Pantarotto, lawyer and human rights educator.
There are also separate entrances for people with disabilities. "It allows quick and comfortable access, without congestion. Before, everyone used to enter through the same gates, with long lines pushing and shoving — stressful conditions for anyone, but even more so for people with disabilities," says Juan Pablo Chiappe. Going to matches "is Tomi's favorite activity, one we share every home game, and where he can be happy, enjoy himself and feel included".
Of course, accessibility is not only physical. That is why River Plate is working on a sensory room where people with autism can enjoy a match in comfort and with accommodations — something unprecedented in South America. The room, which will start operating in February next year, will have a capacity for up to 12 people, in a space with acoustic insulation that will help prevent unwanted stimuli from entering or leaving the room.
Another key feature of the club that River sin Barreras emphasizes is the club's museum. "It was a great achievement that it was built taking accessibility into account," says Plandolit. The museum is wheelchair accessible, it has adapted restrooms, hearing loop systems in video rooms, Argentine sign language interpretation and Braille signage. They also have cognitive and plain language adaptations for people who require them. For guided visits to the stadium and the museum, accessibility has also been considered: "We host schools, associations, foundations and provide them with the cognitive, communicational and sensory support that each group requires," explains Tamara Bruna, former spokesperson and current second vice-president of River sin Barreras.
There are also separate entrances for people with disabilities allowing for quick and comfortable access.
"River is the showcase of great impact from which we can influence society to improve inclusive processes," says Plandolit. The club has developed activities aimed at sharing its expertise with other sports organizations and raising awareness of the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities.
River sin Barreras carried out an inter-club football forums to promote inclusive initiatives, with representatives from the Disability Department of different Argentine Football Association clubs. In these meetings, professionals from the Argentine national adapted football teams to different disabilities (such as indoor football for the blind, silent football, football for people with cerebral palsy) explained the accommodations needed to practice these disciplines. They also organized the "Stadiums Without Barriers" conference, in collaboration with the Centre for Access to Football in Europe NGO, to promote accessibility in Argentine stadiums.
Among awareness-raising actions, on one occasion players of the national football team for the deaf interpreted the River anthem – composed by Ignacio Copani (the most traditional song sung on the pitch) – in Argentine Sign Language (ASL). "It was a resounding success. Not only for the dissemination of ASL, but to raise awareness of the deaf national team, to show that there is only one football, one that everyone can play," said Plandolit.
River has also actively participated in awareness campaigns in support of different organizations. "We joined World Muscular Dystrophy Day, International Epilepsy Awareness Day, International Spina Bifida Day, World Cerebral Palsy Day, among others," he says.
On International Autism Awareness Day, Enzo Pérez – a player in River Plate's first division – went out to the pitch wearing ear defenders, with the aim of highlighting how some autistic people can be affected by noise. He did it accompanied by Tomás Chiappe, the young man from River sin Barreras, who now helps spread a message of inclusion. His father said: "Tomás knows he is helping to raise awareness. All these actions make him feel included, useful, happy. It boosts his self-esteem. Besides, it excites him as a River supporter and fan."
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