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By Jerry Wolffe
November 25, 2007
The Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America has been joined by a powerful ally in its discrimination case against the University of Michigan.
The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the veterans in its lawsuit against the university, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the university and its board of regents continue to “illegally discriminate” against persons with disabilities by failing to make its football stadium accessible.
In addition, the Justice Department said it would conduct an architectural survey by a team of inspectors of the 80-year-old stadium to determine if it is in compliance with accessibility regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The accessibility survey will begin on Tuesday and continue “for no less than five days,” said attorney Richard Bernstein of Farmington Hills, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the paralyzed veterans group, based in Novi.
“Attending football games is a key element of campus life at the University of Michigan, both for students and alumni,” said Rena J. Comisac, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“We seek to ensure that the university’s iconic football stadium, the largest stadium in the United States, has the accessible seating and amenities that federal law requires.”
U-M officials issued a statement that they were “disappointed that the Department of Education has declined to negotiate a resolution to our differences and has instead elected to refer their complaint to the Department of Justice.
“There is an enormous gulf between the number of seats the Justice and Education departments would require in the stadium and the number of seats our ticketholders actually need.
“We are committed to always accommodating every patron who needs an accessible seat, have always done so, and will always in the future.”
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox, who is hearing the case, has the authority to order the 40,000-student university to make whatever changes deemed necessary in the stadium to halt discrimination against people with disabilities.
The suit contends U-M failed to comply with the ADA, which requires 1 percent, or 1,075 seats, in the 107,501-seat stadium to be wheelchair accessible as part of its $226 million renovation project.
Currently, the stadium has 88 accessible seats and has offered to create a total of 592 wheelchair accessible seats by constructing removable platforms for wheelchair users.
U-M’s offer was “completely unacceptable” and it was attempting to create its own law rather than follow existing federal law, Bernstein said.
“This case goes well beyond Michigan Stadium,” he said.
At the hearing, the Justice Department was accepted as a co-plaintiff with the veterans, and the stadium survey was ordered.
“Any place of public venue in the nation is going to be directly impacted by the outcome of this case,” Bernstein said.
The university has contended that adding 83 skyboxes that will rent for $85,000 a year, resurfacing parts of the stadium and making other modifications were just a repair and not an alteration. If the work is deemed an alteration, the ADA accessibility rules apply for every facet of the structure.
The Justice Department’s action follows an investigation by the Education Department, which on Oct. 26 issued a formal findings letter to the university “concluding that the university violated both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA,” which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
However, the veterans group’s Executive Director Mike Harris said if the stadium was more accessible, people who use wheelchairs would go to games.
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