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The Detroit Free Press
By Kristen Jordan Shamus
February 18, 2007
Sarah Watkins is a true-blue Michigan football fan, make no mistake.
But this past year, the 21-year-old U-M social science senior from Grand Rapids watched Wolverine games in her room, on television, rather than heading over to the Big House, as she had the past three seasons.
The reason? Her seat.
"I was going to games by myself, never able to see," said Watkins, who uses a wheelchair. "Going to games turned out to be this really stressful thing."
Amid all the plans for renovating the University of Michigan's hallowed stadium and the controversy over whether the addition of luxury boxes and the loss of bleacher seats fits its reputation is what some disabled fans say is an even bigger problem: They say the stadium has never adequately met standards in the Americans with Disabilities Act and won't, even after the planned $262-million expansion, which is to start later this year and end by August 2010.
In recent months, a group called the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America has ratcheted up its demands that the expansion result in more seats -- spread around the stadium and not limited to the end zones as they say they are now -- for wheelchair users. The group has threatened a lawsuit and implored the Legislature to withhold funding for the university to get U-M to go along.
The Legislature has decided not to get involved, but the issue is already beyond that, with a federal investigation under way into whether Michigan Stadium has complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
University officials say the stadium is in full compliance with the law, deny that the expansion is being investigated and note that the project will increase the number of seats for wheelchair users from 90 to 282, far more than the number of fans requesting such seating.
Critics, however, say that number should be more than 1,000 -- 1% of the capacity, which they say is called for by the ADA. With 107,501 seats, the Big House is the biggest college-owned stadium in the nation; after the expansion, there will be more than 108,000 seats.
In a November letter to the university's general counsel, an official with U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said the number of accessible seats may be inadequate.
"It looks like this is going to be litigated," said Richard Bernstein, a lawyer representing the veterans group. "The university has drawn a hard line on this."
Mike Harris, deputy executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, said Watkins' experience is similar to that of other wheelchair users at Michigan Stadium: too few seats, and those that are available are limited to the end zones and have poor sightlines.
The problem, Harris said, is that the stadium doesn't have to comply with ADA standards because it was built in the 1920s -- long before the ADA's passage in 1990.
But facilities predating the ADA are required to come into compliance if they undergo substantial renovation. In a letter from the OCR to the university last June, an official noted that school officials attempted to characterize projects at the stadium as repairs, meaning that the compliance provision wouldn't kick in.
An OCR spokesman refused to discuss the investigation last week, other than to confirm that it is under way. Although it is rare, the office may cut off federal funding or refer the matter to the Department of Justice to force compliance.
"Moving to enforcement is almost a last resort," Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said in an e-mail to the Free Press on Friday. "It would occur only if OCR were unable to negotiate a settlement with an institution."
There are examples of the government forcing compliance: In 2001, the Justice Department required upgrades for handicap parking and accessibility at what was called PSINet Stadium in Baltimore, home to the NFL's Ravens. And at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, the Justice Department forced the addition of more wheelchair-accessible seats to meet the 1% ADA rule.
In neither case, however, were the stadiums subject to a grandfather clause.
University officials have maintained not only that the stadium and its expansion are in compliance but that any investigation by OCR is limited to past projects.
Kelly Cunningham, a U-M spokeswoman, said the school's desire to provide for disabled fans is proven by plans to more than triple the accessible seats, which the school says covers ADA standards.
The proposal would add wheelchair-accessible seats in various locations: 72 in the top row on the west side of the stadium; 24 outdoor club seats on the east side; 14 indoor club seats and 82 in luxury boxes.
"We now have 53 season-ticket holders requesting accessible seating," Cunningham said.
Harris said the school is still putting wheelchair-users "in the least desirable" locations.
Watkins is hopeful that whatever happens, students like her one day will be able to enjoy games at the stadium.
"My main beef with the stadium is that people with disabilities are not able to have the experience other people have," she said.
"If the stadium were 100% accessible, you better believe I'd buy a ticket and go to a game and say, 'This is what a football game is supposed to be like.' "
Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.
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