If the pending lawsuit filed by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America left any doubt about how accommodating the University has been to its disabled fans at Michigan Stadium, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights cleared it up last week. Chronicling more than a decade of disregarding the disabled, ignoring the law and circumventing an investigation, a letter from the OCR to the University made it clear that the lack of action has been blatantly discriminatory.
Concluding an investigation that began in March 2005 and evaluated construction projects dating back to 1991, the 42-page letter was in some respects an extension of the grievances cited in the MPVA’s pending lawsuit. Echoing the claim made in the lawsuit, the OCR found the stadium’s lack of wheelchair-accessible seating dispersed throughout the stadium to be deplorable and discriminatory. However, unlike the lawsuit, the OCR found more broad accessibility problems with the routes into the stadium, the bathrooms, the concession stands, the routes into the seating area and the M-Dens. It also came with a threat to cut federal funding if the University doesn’t make changes.
The OCR put a human face to the problem, recounting the anecdotes of several fans who suffered from the Big House’s unwelcoming conditions. One wheelchair-bound fan described getting friction burns on his hands when he tried to slow his wheelchair on a steep slope exiting the stadium. Another man complained that when he took his disabled father to a game, he couldn’t find an accessible bathroom before his father soiled himself, and even then none of the bathrooms had resources to properly deal with the situation. Lastly, a fan described having to empty his catheter bag outside because the passageway into the bathroom stall was too narrow for his wheelchair.
In its response Monday to this investigation, the University did what has become all too common in the way it has handled this problem: It wrote off these serious concerns as anomalies that don’t require any more than a minimal, behind-the-scenes response.
Again, the University used its counterproductive argument about the technical, legal question of whether its projects are renovations, which would require ADA compliance, or repairs, which would not. It added that it doesn’t have to follow the law anyway because disabled people won’t fill the seats even if it did provide them. For good measure, it took a few pot shots at the OCR too, claiming that the OCR’s judgment was “fundamentally unfair and wrong.”
These arguments are both disingenuous and distracting. As the OCR noted, the lack of demand for wheelchair accessible seats is an illustration of the problem rather than a reason not to act, because fans don’t want tickets if the stadium is inaccessible and unwelcoming. While it’s true that the ADA was not intended to force old stadiums to retrofit the entire structure for small repairs, its intent certainly wasn’t to allow stadiums to indefinitely make small repairs that add up to big changes while skirting the law. Its intent probably wasn’t to force disabled people to soil themselves because of the lack of accessible bathrooms, either.
At a meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs – the executive branch of the Faculty Senate – University President Mary Sue Coleman called the skybox plan “the most openly transparent project” she has ever worked on at the University. However, she failed to mention the OCR letter, which she received earlier that day. How ironic. While making that statement, Coleman must also have forgotten about the stacking of the speakers’ list with skybox supporters at the June meeting of the University Board of Regents and the faculty petition stating that its voice wasn’t heard in this process.
The OCR letter describes numerous other University attempts to thwart the investigation. Although the OCR requested information about the multiple “Concrete Repair Projects” made during the 1990s, it didn’t receive this information until July 2007. Instead, many of the details in its letter had to be gathered from other sources, including pictures from Sports Illustrated, the University’s website and minutes of Regents meetings. On at least seven occasions between 2004 and 2007, the OCR also notified the University that the changes it was making to the stadium were significant enough to be renovations – a detail Coleman conveniently ignored in her fervor over skyboxes.
The University’s complete lack of transparency and the fact that it has to be coerced into accommodating people in wheelchairs are a complete disgrace to its institutional reputation. With so many complaints at the Big House being ignored, it’s easy to wonder how many other university facilities are unaccommodating to students in wheelchairs. Such discrimination should be unthinkable at the University of Michigan.
Sadly, it’s now a fair possibility.