The U.S. Department of Education said U-M should have fixed the problems during construction projects at the stadium, like this one in '06. (John T. Greilick The Detroit News)
Millions of dollars in federal financial aid to needy students at the University of Michigan may be in jeopardy because the university continues to discriminate against wheelchair users at its football stadium, according to the federal government.
U-M has 10 days to respond to a scathing report released by the U.S. Department of Education on Oct. 26, chastising the university for providing inadequate access to wheelchair users at its Michigan Stadium football games.
Calling the report surprising and unexpected, U-M leaders vehemently disagreed with the department's findings, maintaining the university is fully compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and committed to accessibility.
If U-M doesn't cooperate, however, the federal department has threatened to terminate federal financial aid funds to the 39,700-student university or turn the case over to the U.S. Justice Department to compel enforcement. U-M students receive nearly $160 million in aid through federal loans, work-study and grants to low-income students.
The 42-page letter of finding to U-M followed an investigation that began eight years ago by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The department found the stadium is not accessible to disabled individuals, as required by federal law, and blasted U-M for not fixing the problem during numerous stadium construction projects.
"The university is discriminating against individuals with mobility impairments because the stadium does not include a sufficient number of accessible seats; the accessible seating is not dispersed so as to provide persons with mobility impairments the same range of seating choices as is provided to persons without disabilities."
U-M will respond within the 10 days, but won't concede wrongdoing, spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said.
"Every ticket holder who has required an accessible seat has been accommodated. Furthermore, plans currently under way specify significant additions to the number of accessible seats at a range of excellent locations in the stadium, as well as improvements in the accessibility of parking, restrooms, and concessions," she said.
As far as U.S. funds in jeopardy, Cunningham said, "We hope to resolve this. There is much opportunity for resolution of this issue."
U-M already faces a lawsuit filed by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America alleging the current stadium design is inaccessible and the proposed $226 million renovation plan, which includes the addition of luxury boxes and club seats, won't fix the problem. Construction is slated to begin after the U-M vs. Ohio State game this fall.
"This basically validates what we've been saying all along and hopefully the university will start taking this more seriously now," and Mike Harris, executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Richard Bernstein, a lawyer for the veterans, said he'll file a motion in court asking the judge to find the university is violating the law.
"After this report, there is no question the university is in clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and they have been for years," Bernstein said. "All we are requesting is that U-M follow basic federal law and allow wheelchair users to come to the games, use the restrooms and sit in different sections and be part of the U of M community."
The federal probe dates back to 1999, when a fan filed a complaint about problems with seating and facilities after taking his father, who used a wheelchair, to a game.
His father had to search for so long for an accessible toilet that he soiled himself.
U-M agreed, in a deal reached with the federal government in 2000, that future renovations or alterations at the stadium would include consideration of accessibility upgrades.
But the Department of Education reopened the investigation in 2004 when U-M failed to alert them to "several million dollars of construction projects" that meant removing and replacing thousands of bench seats over a period of years at the stadium, the report says.
U-M's Cunningham said the university fully cooperated "in good faith with the Department of Education, granting all of their requests for relevant information throughout the course of their investigation.
"We were therefore surprised and disappointed that they unexpectedly issued a negative statement that not only contains misinformation, but also ignores the many measures we have already taken -- as well as those we are now undertaking -- to enhance access to the Michigan Stadium," Cunningham said.
The stadium was built in 1927 -- long before passage of the federal ADA in 1990. However, when the stadium is renovated or altered, federal guidelines require that U-M bring the stadium up to code.
The Department of Education says U-M has reconstructed almost all of the seating bowl, which makes the modern-day accessibility requirements kick in. U-M has maintained the changes to seating over the years have been repairs and not alterations under the law. Specific violations cited by the report include:
U-M officials say the area to be renovated, which includes 83 luxury suites, a new press box and 3,200 club seats, will meet all federal guidelines and include at least 230 new wheelchair-accessible seats.