What's in a word? Michigan Stadium vs. the Paralyzed Vets

Daily News Editor
Published June 3, 2007

The Paralyzed Veterans of America is going to battle with the University over its plans to improve Michigan Stadium. The issue boils down to whether the University is simply making repairs, or whether it is altering, modifying or changing the entire stadium.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that "all new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities." The act requires that in venues like the stadium, one percent of the modifications must be accessible.

Richard Bernstein, who has been representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America for over 6 months, said the lawsuit was sparked by a comment made by Athletic Director Bill Martin.

In an interview in the May 23 edition of The Detroit News about a new television station that will provide 24-hour coverage of Big Ten sports, Martin commented that he would have to consider what team Michigan would play in the "opening game for 2010 in the new stadium."

"Who do we have for the ribbon-cutting game?" he was quoted as saying.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said that The Detroit News took the quote out of context in another article.

Bernstein acknowledged that Martin was talking about something different, but said that, regardless, "he let the truth of his intentions slip out."

"How many times do you go out and say, 'we're having a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a repair?' " Bernstein said.

Bernstein and the clients he represents now aim to show that commentary from University representatives like Martin demonstrates a recurring pattern of identifying the stadium construction as a massive project that will result in a "new" stadium.

If the University was to build a new stadium from scratch, it would have to be ADA compliant and provide one percent accessible seating, Cunningham confirmed.

But while Martin and others have referred to several construction projects as components of the "new stadium," Cunningham says the legal dispute is over construction on the concrete bowl, which is classified as a repair and not subject to ADA regulations.

Cunningham said that Michigan Stadium as a whole is currently ADA compliant because "the one percent figure does not apply to stadiums built in 1927," and that the expansions to the stadium, which are separate from the concrete repairs, will meet ADA standards.

When the construction is complete, the stadium will contain 282 accessible seats, each of which will be paired with a companion seat, in addition to the 90 pairs it already has.

Cunningham said that at the current level of accessible seating, the University has always been able to accommodate an individual's request for accessible seating.

Furthermore, she said that it would be structurally impossible to add additional accessible seats to the bowl.

"The expansion project actually is the best way to provide additional accessible seats," Cunningham said.

Regardless of whether the accommodations are sufficient, Bernstein said he worries about the effect the University's building plan will have on the civil rights of the disabled.

"If Mary Sue Coleman is able to get away with making the stadium new and renovated without following the ADA by dividing her renovations up and saying, 'we're just doing repairs,' this will have a tremendously devastating impact on the Americans with Disabilities Act in a profound way," Bernstein said.

Bernstein anticipates that "ADA standards will be put in jeopardy by the conduct of the University" and the stadium construction "could act as a roadmap for other developers" looking to skirt ADA standards.

Bernstein said builders "could do it the way Mary Sue Coleman is doing it," and that disabled people could be "locked out of facilities."

He also said that if he were not able to come to an "amicable settlement" with the University, Bill Martin would have to explain his comments.

Cunningham said that the University has been involved in productive talks with the plaintiff and is "working towards a favorable outcome," but said she wouldn't comment on the content of the exchanges out of respect for the process.