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By Jim Irwin
November 20, 2007
ANN ARBOR - The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday asked to join a paralyzed veterans group in its lawsuit demanding more wheelchair-accessible seating at the University of Michigan football stadium.
The department wants to join a federal lawsuit filed by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America claiming the current stadium design is inaccessible and the renovation plan will neither fix the problem nor bring the facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The department also filed a motion asking for permission to inspect 80-year-old Michigan Stadium, where a three-year, $226 million renovation is in its early stages.
A hearing on the motions was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox in Detroit.
By ignoring the veterans concerns, university President Mary Sue Coleman and the governing Board of Regents have been involved in a systematic act of discrimination against disabled people, said Richard Bernstein, a Farmington Hills attorney representing the veterans group. This situation and the compelling national interest the preservation of the ADA and the integrity of the ADA is at stake.
Messages seeking comment on the motions were left after business hours Tuesday with university lawyers Keefe Brooks and Katherine Goudie.
The university on Monday proposed offering more wheelchair seating following the release of a federal report saying the facility violates the law.
If the schools proposal is accepted, the number of accessible seats would increase to about 592 by the 2010 season. That includes the current 90 accessible seats, 207 seats as part of its expansion project and 295 additional seats.
The Education Department on Tuesday notified the university that its proposal was unacceptable because, among other reasons, it does not commit to any additional wheelchair seating until 2010 and does not commit to providing any permanent wheelchair-designated seating.
The matter was referred to Justice after several months in which its Office of Civil Rights tried to persuade the university to voluntarily resolve this matter, Education Department spokesman Samara Yudof said.
The stadium's current capacity is 107,501. The renovations will add luxury suites and a club, increasing capacity of the Big House by about 750, to 108,251.
Bernstein said the veterans group wants 1 percent of available tickets to events at the renovated stadium about 1,080 to be wheelchair accessible. The group is not seeking monetary damages, he said, adding, “All the paralyzed veterans want is for the University of Michigan to follow the ADA. That’s it.”
If the Justice Department is allowed to intervene in the case, an adverse ruling could put the university at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal aid.
The Education Department said in a report to the university last month that the school continues to violate the ADA.
The school has disagreed with the reports findings and maintains the university is complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also has said the renovation project is unrelated to claims in the federal report.
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