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By Robin Erb, Free Press Education Writer
November 19, 2007
The University of Michigan is extending an olive branch — in the form of a substantial increase in its wheelchair-accessible seating at Michigan Stadium — to the U.S. Department of Education. But whether U-M's offer is enough to stave off a showdown in court with the federal government over planned renovations to the Big House is uncertain.
Under the compromise proposed in a letter today to the Department of Education, U-M would tweak its renovation plans at the storied stadium, converting current bench seating to accessible seating by using portable platforms.
As the season nears, any seats not needed for wheelchairs could then be converted back to bench seating, according to the plan outlined this morning in a 7-page letter to the U.S. Education Department's Civil Rights office.
Those and other proposed changes would boost the number of accessible seats in the stadium to 592. However, if — as a veterans group suing the school claims -- the entire stadium must become compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act -- it would need more than 1,000 seats after renovations are completed.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox has called for a status conference in the Paralyzed Veterans case at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
The Department of Education, which last month found that the university stadium violated federal accessibility standards, had given the university until today to find a way to add substantial accessible seating to the stadium to make the Big House compliant with what it outlines as federal accessibility standards. It also demanded changes in restrooms, ramps, and other access issues.
Education officials had first threatened to withhold federal funding from the university, then threatened litigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, if the university didn't make changes.
But the university has long insisted that the stadium does meet requirements. University officials had countered the old portion of the stadium, built in 1927, does not fall under the ADA. Further, the expansion project approved last year would have added 207 accessible seats to the current 88 to 90 accessible seats.
In today’s letter, U-M's interim general counsel Gloria Hage today outlined the university's new plan for further boosting its handicap accessibility as it renovates the Big House.
The university would install "portable platforms" that would boost accessible additional seating available. Such seating would be located around the stadium. That would add up to 295 accessible seats and another 295 companion seats to the current stadium at different price-ticket levels.
Another 207 seats would be added in the expanded portion of the stadium, also with companion seating.
Accessible portable toilets would be added, and the restrooms in the press box and regent's section also would be upgraded.
But Richard Bernstein, the attorney representing the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter, said the compromise sidesteps a precedent-setting legal issue. Bernstein argues that the university is ignoring federal accessibility standards by doing renovations piecemeal.
A compromise should be unacceptable, he said.
“The precedent and the import of this will affect stadiums, hotels, movie theaters, any public venue, across the country,” he said.
Whatever the U.S. Education Department decides, the Veterans' case will continue, Bernstein said.
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