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The Associated Press
By David Runk
March 10, 2008
DETROIT (AP) ‹ The University of Michigan will more swiftly enhance wheelchair accessibility at its football stadium as part of an agreement approved Monday with a paralyzed veterans' group that had sued the school.
Under a consent decree signed by U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox that avoids a possible trial, the school also will offer wheelchair accessible seats in more areas of Michigan Stadium than originally planned as part of its three-year, $226 million renovation.
"This is about more than access to a football stadium," said Richard Bernstein, attorney for the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America. "This is about access for people at public facilities all across America."
Starting with this season, 96 new accessible seats ‹ plus an equal number for companions ‹ will be available along the stadium's east side. And by the start of the 2010 season, at least 329 accessible seats ‹ plus an equal number for companions ‹ will be available throughout the stadium, including the student section.
The "Big House" previously had about 90 wheelchair-accessible seats, divided equally within each end zone.
"We have always sought to provide the best possible game-day experience for all of our loyal football fans," Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said in a statement. "This agreement is an important step toward achieving that goal."
The agreement includes five years of court oversight. And the school will work with architects for the veterans' group to enhance the wheelchair accessibility of parking, access routes, restrooms, concessions and other amenities over the next three years.
University officials had said they believed the stadium, built in 1927, met Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and would continue doing so after the originally planned renovations are complete. The stadium's current capacity was 107,501. The renovations will add luxury suites and club seats, increasing capacity by about 750, to 108,251.
Officials said the agreement means seating capacity at Michigan Stadium will dip to 106,201 in 2008 and 2009, which will no longer rank as the nation's largest. They said the stadium could reclaim its mantle in 2010, following completion of the ongoing expansion.
The number of at least 329 wheelchair accessible seats in the agreement doesn't include about 135 wheelchair accessible seats available in the new luxury suites and club seats, said Gloria Hage, an attorney for the school.
"We're thrilled with the compromise," Hage said.
The veterans group had said ADA rules would require that 1 percent of seats at the renovated stadium ‹ about 1,080 ‹ must be wheelchair accessible. But Bernstein said the plans outlined in the agreement offer seats throughout the stadium, instead of just in certain areas, and in 2011 more enhancements will be discussed.
"It is better real estate, said Bernstein, a 1996 Michigan graduate who is blind and took the case pro bono. "They ring the entire stadium."
The veterans' group sued the university in April, claiming the current stadium design is inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the group in its lawsuit in November.
"This agreement will ensure that the university's football stadium ... has the accessible seating and amenities that federal law requires," Grace Chung Becker, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
The veterans' group also claimed the current renovation of the stadium, which began last year, would neither fix the problems nor bring the stadium into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When the lawsuit was filed, the school had said the finished project would increase to 282 the number of wheelchair-accessible seats throughout the stadium. In the fall, the university proposed offering more wheelchair seating following the release of a federal report saying the stadium violates the law.
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