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Ann Arbor News
By Emily Cloyd
December 5, 2007
The University of Michigan's struggle to resist accommodating handicapped sports fans in Michigan Stadium has been almost a daily front-page topic for weeks now. What seems to have gone unnoticed is this story isn't just about the stadium. It illustrates a serious attitudinal problem in the university as a whole.
While few of us can judge the exact number of stadium seats (or more helpful accommodations) needed, the need itself is wonderfully obvious: the merest glance at the inside of the stadium makes it immediately clear that this is not a place where people with mobility problems are welcome. The unwillingness to accommodate people with disabilities creates problems for many, but I think no other manifestation is so obvious. I hope the university would not try to argue that it does an outstandingly fine job of accommodating handicapped students, staff and faculty (much less visitors to museums and libraries), but I would be naive to expect it to be more willing to admit general inadequacies than it was to admit to the inadequacies of the accommodations in the stadium.
At the end of October, the university could declare that its former accommodations (almost 90 spaces in a building with a capacity of more than 100,000) in the stadium were already adequate. I think it has now reluctantly moved a little way away from its October position. Similarly, it has some basis in policies and provisions for accommodation elsewhere in the university today to declare that its present accommodation is adequate. But as with the stadium, the declaration would have problems with a truth test.
The policies and provisions read well, though it is easy to find places where they could be improved.
Improving them would not really help, however. The problem is that conformity to the policies and provisions lies entirely in the hands of individuals who have no better grasp of the needs of the disabled than we have seen in the official protestations about providing accommodations in the stadium.
In my 33-year career as a faculty member at the university, I was legally handicapped for the last 10. Those 10 years gave me plenty of time to discover what administrative support existed for conformity to federal regulations requiring reasonable accommodations for the disabled or even for our own rules.
Strictly speaking, I found little or no such support. In practice, everything seemed to depend on people with a good deal of power but no training or understanding. I found that I had to expect obstruction in the simplest matters, such as a request for an accessible classroom. I found administrators who rejected physicians' letters as biased and undeserving of credibility. I often heard complaints about "special privileges'' from people to whom I would have been delighted to give up any "special privilege'' in exchange for restoration of former mobility or relative freedom from pain.
It is important to note that some individuals from whom I had to seek help managed to provide it with a level of grace, skill and generosity that leaves me forever grateful. Too often, however, I found again the attitude which is stunningly clear in regard to stadium seating: If you need accommodation, you aren't welcome here.
When we find it acceptable to entertain definitions of "reasonable accommodation'' which exclude or disadvantage selected groups of people, whether women, non-Caucasians or the disabled, we have lost sight of our mission as educators. We should have learned that lesson long ago.
Coming to the university in 1967 as the first or second woman in the history of my department eligible for tenure, I learned at the first faculty meeting I attended that one of the marks of excellence in the new freshman class was that they had high scores on a test of their "masculinity index.'' Most of the students apparently knew that real men preferred raw to cooked carrots. The world was already changing, but the university didn't quite get it yet.
In 2007, we are still capable of folly. The world has changed even more since the stadium was built in 1927. It is time that the university recognizes that when the Justice Department takes an interest in our football stadium, change has overtaken us again when we weren't looking, and that providing some wheelchair-accessible spaces won't begin to solve the real problems we need to address in this new world.
When I retired in 2000, some of us were worrying about possible federal attention to the inadequate provision of accessible handicapped parking on main campus. I suspect that accessibility is still a problem, though my status makes it nearly impossible for me to visit campus to check. My own immediate concern is not about facilities or even policies. What we really need is atmospheric change, a change in attitude. Where are the administrators who will strive to make the university a place where all are empowered to do the best work of which they are capable, a place where no one is obstructed by obsolete institutional attitudes toward sex, race or disability?
About the writer: Emily Cloyd, an Ypsilanti resident, is an emeritus associate professor in the University of Michigan English Department.
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