Feds: 'U' ignored disabled fans

BY GABE NELSON
Daily News Editor
Published October 30, 2007

Correction appended: This article did not credit Arikia Millikan. She contributed reporting to the story.

Brian Merlos
Platforms: According to the letter, fans in wheelchairs are usually "squeezed together as tightly as possible" when sitting on the platform designated for wheelchairs. In many cases, fans standing in front of the platforms make it hard for those in wheelc
Brian Merlos
Bathrooms: According to the letter, all of the bathrooms in the stadium designated as wheelchair-accessible deviate from disability rules. In some cases, the stalls are too narrow and the toilets too high. For one visit, the bathroom floor was covered in
Brian Merlos
(DAILY FILE PHOTO)
Brian Merlos
M-Den: The letter argues that all three M-Den locations in the stadium were built after 1990 and therefore must comply with ADA standards. According to the letter, the M-Dens do not have the number of handrails required for entry ramps and also have thres

A day after the University acknowledged receiving a letter from the Department of Education describing Michigan Stadium as largely unfriendly to disabled fans and the University as largely unwilling to provide information about the stadium to the department's Office for Civil Rights, University officials said they disagree with the letter's substance but will negotiate with the office.

The University has seven more days to reach an agreement with the OCR about how to make Michigan Stadium accessible. If no deal is made, the Department of Education could make moves to cut its funding to the University.

If the University hopes to maintain its current budget, that's not an option - the University received almost $35 million in Department of Education grants last year.

On top of that, the department could also take away the millions of dollars in Pell grants, work-study funds and student loans that University students receive each year, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education, in an interview yesterday.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham declined to comment on specific claims made in the letter, which was sent on Friday, saying the University intends to discuss the matter with the Department of Education over the next week.

"I don't feel it's appropriate to go point-by-point with the different allegations that they're making," Cunningham said. "Suffice it to say that we disagree with the allegations in the report and we will have a response."

Bradshaw said the department usually reaches an agreement with the offending party.

"In the vast majority of cases, we're able to work with schools to help them come into compliance with the law," he said. "While cutting off funding is an option, it's a last resort. But it is an option. It is part of the law that we enforce."

The OCR's letter says that the University has broken those laws by failing to provide adequate accommodations for disabled fans. The letter says the University's facilities have discouraged fans who need wheelchairs from attending football games.

It says one fan described getting friction burns on his hands from trying to move down a steep slope on a wheelchair ramp and another told investigators that his wheelchair-bound father soiled himself after being unable to find an accessible bathroom. A third fan reported having emptied his catheter bag on the concourse next to a tree because he couldn't get his wheelchair through a hallway to an accessible stall.

In the letter, stadium patrons using wheelchairs reported being "crammed" into platforms designed for wheelchairs while fans in front of them stood, blocking their view. They also criticized the University for not offering a wide variety of seat locations, echoing the concerns of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which has filed a lawsuit challenging the number of wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium.

Adding to mounting complaints from faculty and fans about a lack of transparency in the University's process for approving renovations, the letter also says the University has refused to provide the OCR with information, or has provided limited information, about renovation projects conducted over the last 15 years.

"We note that our investigation was impeded by the University's failure to respond to our requests for information about many construction projects," the letter says. "OCR has been compelled to base its information on the limited information that the University has made available in addition to OCR's independent investigation."

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said she was surprised that the University received the letter, saying it has provided the department with requested information and has renovated its facilities in response to criticisms raised by the OCR.

A renovation project scheduled to begin at the end of this football season will fix many of the problems cited in the letter, Cunningham said. The project will also add more ADA-compliant bathrooms and concessions to the main concourse in addition to adding structures containing premium seating along the sidelines atop the seating bowl.

"They have all the information about the expansion project," Cunningham said yesterday. "We've been so transparent about everything we're doing with the expansion project that they've got to know what it is. I'm completely baffled."

Cunningham said the University has already made some of the necessary changes outlined in the letter, including expanding bathrooms to make them accessible to wheelchairs and lowering counters at concession stands to accommodate wheelchair-bound patrons.

The Department of Education's letter says that the counters adjusted by the University are still several inches higher than required by the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards and that the University did not lower counters at all types of concessions stands.

Physics Prof. Keith Riles, a member of the Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs, criticized University President Mary Sue Coleman in a written statement yesterday for not telling SACUA, the University faculty Senate's executive arm, about the Department of Education's letter when she spoke to the group on Monday.

"It is ironic that President Coleman did not inform SACUA of the pending stadium ultimatum as she touted the openness and transparency of the stadium renovations process," Riles said in the statement. "Communication with the faculty needs to be improved."

See the full text of the letter at michigandaily.com

- Arikia Millikan contributed to this report