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The Oakland Press
By Jerry Wolffe
April 18, 2007
The Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America filed suit Tuesday against the University of Michigan over the $226 million renovation of Michigan Stadium.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor, asked the court to increase the number of wheelchair seats in the 107,501-seat stadium from about 90 to the 1,075 mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines.
The university has argued that the project to replace asphalt, cement and seats, and add a new scoreboard, 83 suites and 3,200 club seats is a repair and not an alteration.
If the U-M project is considered a repair and not an alteration, the changes do not have to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines, according to the law.
“It’s disappointing that it came to this,” said Michael Harris, the executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America of Novi.
“We’re asking that they abide by the ADA, which requires 1 percent of seats be wheelchair accessible and dispersed throughout the seating bowl in all price ranges,” he said.
“Our goal is to have the same options that the general public has in seating and viewing a game,” Harris said.
“I’m convinced they should do this even if the law didn’t dictate it, because of the U-M’s emphasis on diversity and it’s the right thing to do,” he added. “We don’t need to further exclude and isolate the disabled.”
The University of Notre Dame Stadium, for example, has “17 different seating areas for the disabled throughout the stadium bowl,” said Harris, a Marine who was paralyzed in a car accident.
“We just want them to comply with the law,” he said. “If they get away with this — calling it a repair instead of an alteration — we will never get accessibility in any existing facility.”
“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the actual lawsuit until I see it,” said Kelly E. Cunningham, director of the office of public affairs at U-M.
“The university is deeply concerned with providing accessible seating for our fans,” she said. “We believe that we are fully compliant with the ADA right now, and the new expansion project will also comply with the law.”
The university plans to have 282 accessible seats for wheelchair users after the project is completed, Cunningham said, about 25 percent of the number required under the ADA Architectural Guidelines. The plans call for the seats to be along the west sideline of the stadium, as well as in outdoor club and indoor club seats and in the suites, she said.
“We are really concerned about providing accessible seats in the stadium,” Cunningham said. “The university strives in every way to provide a welcoming and inclusive campus.”
The lawsuit, filed in Ann Arbor and assigned to Judge Sean Cox, argues that paralyzed veterans and other disabled fans have been discriminated against because of a lack of wheelchair seating at the 80-year-old Michigan Stadium.
The Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America is “fighting so that paralyzed students and paralyzed veterans can have basic civil rights and enjoy part of the U-M football experience,” said the lead attorney in the case, Richard Bernstein, who has an office in Farmington Hills.
If the U-M prevails in its argument that the project is a repair and not a renovation, “it will completely devastate all the work advocates have done for the promise of civil rights for the disabled and gut the essence of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Bernstein said.
The “Big House” also is the “ceremonial icon of the university,” where commencement services are held, and it should comply with the ADA, he said.
The memorial ceremony for the late Wolverine head football coach Glenn “Bo” Schembechler took place at the 50-yard line last November. Those with disabilities were “stuck in the end zones far from the ceremony,” Harris said.
The current 45 wheelchair seats in each end zone are at row 72 of the 95-row high bowl, Cunningham said.
The lawsuit said the discrimination against disabled spectators at the Big House includes not having accessible seating throughout the stadium, and “the renovation will force disabled fans to watch the game from the last row of the stadium after the work is completed.”
“We had to move now and file suit because the work is under way and the university has been deceitful in what it’s doing by replacing seating, blacktop, the scoreboard so that it looks like it’s individual projects instead of a nearly $300 million renovation,” Bernstein said.
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