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By Jerry Wolffe
November 20, 2007
The University of Michigan “strongly disputed” findings by the U.S. Department of Education that the university discriminates against people with disabilities by not having the required number of wheelchair seats in the Big House.
In a case likely to set a national precedent, the Education Department on Oct. 28 chastised the university for failing to provide adequate access to seating for wheelchair users in the nation’s largest college football stadium and threatened to withhold $160 million in student aid.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 80-year-old stadium must have 1 percent of its 107,501 seats accessible to people with disabilities.
After the last game of the year, a 14-3 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, the university began construction of 83 luxury boxes, which will rent for $85,000 each per season.
A lawsuit filed by Farmington Hills attorney Richard Bernstein on behalf of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, based in Novi and headed by Michael Harris, alleged the university failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
The university is in the midst of a $226 million project it calls a repair. However, the veterans group and other critics say the amount of the expenditure to install skyboxes, a new scoreboard, surfaces and concession stands is a renovation.
If it is a renovation, then U-M must comply with the ADA requirement to create 1,075 accessible seats.
In its letter Monday to Stephanie Monroe, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, the university’s interim vice president and general counsel, Gloria Hage, said it “strongly disputes the findings and legal conclusions that the Office of Civil Rights reached in this matter.”
“The university has accommodated every ticket holder who needs an accessible seat in Michigan stadium and will continue to do so in the future,” Hage said in her letter.
She added the university is “committed to providing a range of accessible seating options.”
Under the ADA, accessible seats must be dispersed in all sections of a stadium and in varying price categories.
“Their entire argument is that the ADA doesn’t apply to them,” Bernstein said. “They are trying to say they are exempt and are going to create their own standards they think are appropriate.
“They can’t do that,” he said. “We have to follow basic guidelines and laws. We will just keep moving forward with depositions.”
“We don’t want any design that includes removable platforms that contain accessible seating,” said Harris, referring to the U-M proposal to add accessible seats.
“We believe wheelchair spaces should be an integral and permanent part of the seating plan,” he added.
The Justice Department has the authority to enforce any decision rendered by U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox, who will hear the case if it goes to trial next September.
Cox ordered U-M and the veterans’ attorneys to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday in his federal court in Detroit to discuss new developments.
In its seven-page letter, the university said it was “interested in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter.”
Hage said she was willing to provide the Office of Civil Rights “with an outline of a remedial plan to which the university is prepared to commit.”
“To be clear, we are proposing this plan outline as an offer of compromise — in the interest of implementing our commitment to full and high quality accessibility to Michigan Stadium for individuals with disabilities who use wheelchairs, and in a way that will avoid the time and expense of protracted litigation with the Department of Justice.”
The university said “the total number of accessible seats in the stadium beginning in the 2010 season will be approximately 592. They will include the current 90 accessible seats, 295 additional seats that will be added by ringing the bowl if the Department of Education accepts this plan, and approximately 207 seats that will be part of the expansion project.”
However, Bernstein said the number fails to comply with the ADA’s 1,075 requirement and the proposed seats are on a portable platform, which defies the spirit of the law.
U-M also said its plan provides accessible seating that will be dispersed throughout the stadium at the “full range of ticket prices and viewing locations.”
U-M argued its current routes are accessible and it will “install at least one portable toilet complying” with federal accessibility law and demolish the press box and regents area and rebuild it with “accessible toilet facilities for men and women.”
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