This story was posted at 5:52 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2007

In an effort to avoid a lengthy legal battle with the Department of Justice, the University sent a letter to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights yesterday outlining a plan that would double the number of wheelchair-accessible seats in Michigan Stadium. The plan would add up to 300 wheelchair-accessible seats on top of the 207 slated to be installed as part of the current stadium expansion project, increasing the total number of seats for disabled fans to about 600.

The seats would be located on removable platforms placed on top of existing seats around all of the entrance portals into the stadium. According to the letter, the University would analyze demand for wheelchair-accessible seating each season and add or subtract platforms accordingly.

Similar platforms already exist at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. University officials said they couldn’t estimate how much the platforms would cost.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed that the OCR has received the letter. He said the office is reviewing the letter but declined to comment further.

The proposal is a significant concession by the University, which has argued since discussions began with the OCR eight years ago that the stadium is exempt from Americans with Disabilities Act regulations because it was built decades before that law went into effect in 1990. If the stadium were modified to meet all ADA requirements, it would need more than 1,000 wheelchair-accessible seats.

But the University isn’t admitting that the stadium must be brought into compliance. According to the letter, the University proposed the plan in an attempt to show commitment to the needs of disabled fans and to stave off a lawsuit from the Department of Justice. The University has already been sued by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which argues that Michigan Stadium is in violation of the ADA.

“To be clear, we are proposing this plan outline as an offer of compromise,” the letter says, “in the interest of commitment to full and high quality accessibility to Michigan Stadium for individuals who use wheelchairs, and in such a way that will avoid the time and expense of protracted litigation with the Department of Justice.”

Richard Bernstein, an attorney for the MPVA, called the proposal a “red herring,” saying the addition wouldn’t improve the gameday experience for disabled fans and wouldn’t solve problems like a lack of accessible parking and a lack of accessible paths from parking lots to the stadium concourse. He said those problems would deter disabled fans from attending games, meaning the seating platforms would go unused.

“The University will simply say there’s not enough demand from disabled people to come to the game,” Bernstein said. “If they don’t fix the other stuff, no one will want to come.”

Estimates vary on the exact number of seats that the University’s proposal would add. According to the letter, University officials estimate that the plan would add 295 wheelchair-accessible seats and companion seats but OCR officials have guessed that it would add more than 350 of each.

In either case, it would double the number of wheelchair-accessible seats the stadium is expected to have after the renovation. The original project, approved by the University Board of Regents this summer, was slated to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium from 90 to about 300.

The proposal would cause the University to cover up traditional bleacher seats, threatening the Big House’s status as the largest college football stadium in the country. Athletic Department officials have said 12 bleacher seats must be eliminated to make room for one wheelchair-accessible seat. If that figure holds true, adding disabled seating platforms around the entire stadium could eliminate thousands of total seats from the bowl.

Gloria Hage, the University’s interim general counsel, wouldn’t say whether the addition of seating platforms would have an effect on the stadium’s capacity but said it wasn’t a concern.

“That’s not how we look at it,” Hage said. “We’ll have as much accessible seating as we need. We’re convinced that we can meet everybody’s needs and that’s what we’ve committed to doing.”

The addition of wheelchair-accessible seats on the sidelines could help ease concerns that the stadium’s disabled seating configuration doesn’t offer fans in wheelchairs enough different viewing angles. All of the wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium now are located behind the endzones.

The OCR’s letter to the University last month also said the stadium’s concessions, bathrooms and memorabilia stores were in violation of federal law concerning accessibility to disabled fans. Hage said the University has brought those facilities up to code since representatives of the office last visited in September 2006 and has invited OCR officials to visit and determine whether the problems have been fixed.

The OCR will now consider the University’s proposal and decide whether to refer the case to the Department of Justice. Bernstein said he doesn’t think the office will accept the proposal because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

“It’s just not going to happen,” Bernstein said. “If it did, I’d be very surprised.”

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