It was a sad day for the University when the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America sued the University for failing to provide adequate seating for disabled fans. Even sadder was the fact that one of the University’s central arguments against increasing wheelchair accessible seating was a concern that the seats wouldn’t sell. But with the popularity of the wheelchair-accessible seating now apparent — due to the fact that the vast majority of them were occupied during this past season — it’s even clearer that the decision to increase access for the handicapped was a necessary one. The University, for its part, has learned that improving its atmosphere of acceptance for all people isn’t just a good policy — it’s a policy that sells.
It took an ugly lawsuit and months of negative publicity to convince the University to add wheelchair-accessible seating to the Big House renovation plans last year. Under the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, when a public facility like Michigan Stadium is renovated the facility must be brought into compliance with current federal standards for disability access. This could have required the University to make 1 percent of the Big House’s roughly 100,000 seats wheelchair accessible.
When the legal battle began, the University dug in its heels and claimed that the major changes to the stadium were not “renovations” but “repairs,” which wouldn’t require it to add to the stadium’s paltry total of 92 wheelchair-accessible seats. Besides, the University argued, the seats wouldn’t fill if it offered them. But last March, the lawsuit was settled and administrators committed to make 329 wheelchair-accessible seats available by 2010 and to improve accessibility in bathrooms, concession stands and ticket offices. Though only 184 of these seats were ready for this year’s games, the University has reported that between 74 percent and 89 percent of these seats were sold.
Contrary to the University’s concerns that these seats wouldn’t be filled, the increase in wheelchair-accessible seats was a success. Between 74 and 89 percent is a strong showing, especially during the football team’s heart-breaking performance last season. Clearly, the addition of these seats fills a tangible need for disabled Michigan fans. But providing sufficient access to the stadium for disabled fans shouldn’t have been such an after-thought in any case — it fits right in with the University’s vital goal of creating an acceptable atmosphere on campus for all people, regardless of gender, race, orientation, disability or any other status. The University should strive to be a leader among universities for fostering inclusion and equality.
While the high turnout of disabled fans at home games was unexpected, it further demonstrates the capacity for the University to have a friendly environment for all of its inhabitants. Disabled fans clearly believe in the stadium’s potential to be a welcoming place for them, and administrators should have every reason to believe that tickets for the rest of the wheelchair-accessible seats will sell well when the renovations are complete.
The lack of handicap-accessible seating in the stadium may have begun as a major blow to the University’s credibility, but the high success rate of the new seats means that the disabled community forgives the University for its missteps. The installation of the rest of the wheelchair-accessible seats will not only rectify a once grave mistake, but it will again demonstrate to the University that a more inclusive stadium can be enormously successful.