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New York Times
By Joe LaPointe
March 11, 2008
In a settlement that ended a civil lawsuit in federal court, the University of Michigan agreed to nearly quadruple the number of seats accessible to persons with wheelchairs in its football stadium in Ann Arbor.
There were 88 such seats in Michigan Stadium last year; by 2010, the number will increase to 329 in the main seating bowl, along with an equal number of companion seats for fans accompanying disabled persons.
The agreement, a consent decree, was announced jointly on Monday by the university and the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, a group that had sued the university in United States District Court.
Richard Bernstein, a lawyer for the paralyzed veterans group, said the turning point in the case came last November, when the Department of Education released a report highly critical of the university, and the Department of Justice agreed to join the lawsuit.
"Basically, we got a great agreement, we reached what we hoped to reach," Bernstein said in a telephone interview. "There was a real change in the attitude at Michigan. This will have a tremendous impact on disability rights across the country."
Gloria Hage, a lawyer for the university, said in a telephone interview: "It's a great result for everybody. As soon as the Department of Justice joined the case, we were able to sit down with them and the paralyzed veterans and reach this resolution."
Hage said installation of the new seating would result in the stadium¹s seating capacity being reduced to 106,201 next season, a net loss of 1,300 seats from the 2007 season. In addition to the seating, the stadium will add other improvements for the disabled, including better access to restrooms.
The lawsuit was filed against a backdrop of a separate controversy involving the same stadium. Despite opposition, the Board of Regents voted to allow construction to begin to add 83 luxury boxes to the stadium, a project now under way.
Opponents of the plan said it was wrong for Michigan to make such expensive and exclusive seating a priority while appearing insensitive to people with disabilities.
The university argued that the new boxes were not part of the original stadium structure, built in 1927, and that the existing seating bowl was being repaired, not renovated, and was not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition to the seating for disabled persons in the lower bowl, the luxury boxes and club seats are expected to include an additional 200 accessible spaces for the disabled. Hage said the capacity would increase with the new luxury boxes and club seats, although a precise figure was not known.
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