Better late than never. That’s about the best that can be said about the University’s settlement with the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America Monday. While finally agreeing to necessary accommodations, this settlement hardly negates the University’s 11 months of unconscionable resistance to making the stadium wheelchair accessible. It’s tough to congratulate the University administration for settling a situation that it created with incompetence. On a more positive side, though, this ineptitude has brought at least one good thing: awareness about disability issues. The University must capitalize on this newfound consciousness.
In April 2007, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America sued the University for failing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The organization alleged that previous and upcoming construction on the stadium bowl counted as renovations, which meant that the University should have brought the 80-year-old structure into compliance with the ADA. That could have forced the University to make 1 percent of the more than 100,000 seats in the stadium wheelchair accessible.
While the University didn’t admit any wrongdoing, the two sides reached a settlement Monday. The deal requires the University to have 329 wheelchair-accessible seats by 2010, as well as improve accessibility to bathrooms, concession stands and ticket offices. Adding the seats will cause the Big House to relinquish its title as the largest stadium in the country for at least two years – and maybe forever. Not surprisingly, the University apparently isn’t sure what the outcome of its own construction project will be.
The lawsuit may have never made it to trial, but it never should have made it this far either. For the past year, the University has been playing games on this issue. First it tried semantics, arguing that the construction plans were “repairs” not “renovations.” Then, in September, it tried a pathetic plan to add 14 wheelchair-accessible seats to the stadium, seemingly in hopes of appeasing its critics. No one was convinced. But the University held firm as its reputation for inclusiveness took a hit.
That’s typical of this administration. If it had been forthcoming about the complaints from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights when construction plans were being considered, this prolonged negative attention could have been avoided. If the administration had actually lived up to its commitment to an open dialogue on the Big House construction, this problem (and that of the location of commencement ceremonies) might have been considered and dealt with. The list of if’s is endless.
All of these issues point to one major theme: The University administration and the over-eager Athletic Department completely botched the planning for the stadium construction. This $226-million blunder is an indictment of the management skills of the people in the executive suites of the Fleming Building and Weidenbach Hall.
Still, some good may yet come of this fiasco. The University’s failures have brought critical attention to disability issues. It’s time to capitalize on this attention in order to make campus more welcoming for people with disabilities. The University must educate students about the needs of people with disabilities and create a campus culture that demands that everyone be treated with respect. Students share the responsibility for fostering this culture. Creating a hospitable environment can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of crowding the elevator and leaving wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls for those who actually need them.
It’s embarrassing to hear that some on campus blame the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America for causing the Big House to lose its spot atop the utterly meaningless list of the country’s largest stadiums. If this is something fans actually care about, they should not direct their contempt on football Saturdays at their fellow fans in the wheelchair section. Instead, they should look up – above the crowd, above the press box – to the seating area for the University’s leaders who thought the Michigan Athletic Department was above the law.