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Detroit Free Press
Court fight possible over accessibility for disabled
By Robin Erb, Free Press Education Writer
November 15, 2007
Already under fire from faculty, students and a disabled-veterans group, the University of Michigan now faces a Monday deadline to submit a renovation plan for its fabled stadium acceptable to the U.S. Department of Education, or the U.S. Department of Justice will get involved.
And that could pave the way for a possible court fight with Uncle Sam.
But Wednesday, U-M officials called unnecessary roughness.
"We have proposed for months now the plan we think is very reasonable in that it meets the need" for accessibility to disabled people, said U-M interim general counsel Gloria Hage.
Last month, the Department of Education accused the university of not only failing to make the Big House compliant with federal accessibility guidelines but also impeding its investigation. Initially, the department threatened to pull millions in federal funds from the university if it did not fall in line. The Justice Department's involvement means that cannot happen.
"We are hopeful we can resolve the issues in the next few days," Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said Wednesday.
Talks had been strained by the department's findings against the university.
"When the department issued the letter, it knowingly altered the basis for discussion that had occurred to that point," Hage wrote in a letter last week to officials with the department's Office of Civil Rights in Cleveland. It was that office that issued the findings Oct. 26.
The $226 million worth of construction is expected to begin later this year. Critics have complained the changes don't add enough seats to make the stadium adequately accessible to disabled people.
The university has argued that much of the work is to repair the original stadium, built in 1927. As long as it is repair work, U-M officials contend, they do not have to alter the stadium to meet the standards laid out in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Moreover, planned additions to the stadium add 207 accessible seats to the current 88, spokesman Kelly Cunningham has said.
Also Wednesday, attorneys for the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, the group accusing U-M in a federal lawsuit of skirting the disabilities act, sent notices to those they plan to depose in the suit. Among them: U-M's President Mary Sue Coleman and Athletic Director Bill Martin, its regents, and the architects for the renovated stadium.
Richard Bernstein, who represents the veterans, said a Justice Department attorney called him in May to inquire about the veterans' lawsuit and the same attorney had been present at an Aug. 8 status conference held behind closed doors, where U.S. District Judge Sean Cox laid out deadlines for discovery and a trial.
Though the legal issues don't change if the Justice Department signs on to the case, it brings broad enforcement powers for any orders that come out of a court decision, Bernstein said.
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