Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
How Many Wheelchair Seats Does the Big House Need?
News broke this week of a lawsuit filed by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against the University of Michigan. The suit concerns the number of seats that need to be wheelchair accessible in the stadium, which to this point has been exempt from the 1990 ADA because it was constructed decades before the statute was enacted. With the University poised to launch a major renovation of the 100,000+ seat stadium, plaintiffs argue that the stadium must now comply with the ADA. Under the ADA, public accomodations, like stadiums, must include wheelchair seating. The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that 1% of stadium seating must be wheelchair accessible to comply with the ADA.
The plaintiffs and U of M differ, however, as to whether that 1% figure applies to the new seats to be added as part of the renovation, or to all the seats in the post-renovation stadium. Although more than 1% of the new seats will be wheelchair accessible (increasing the total number of wheelchair accesible seats from 90 to 282), according to the campus student newpaper, the Michigan Daily,
Stadium-wide compliance would include making 1 percent of all seating handicap accessible and offering a variety of seating locations and ticket prices for disabled visitors. For the officially 107,501-seat stadium, that means there must be at least 1,000 handicap accessible seats.In addition, the plaintiffs object to the lack of "companion" seats (for the family and friends of a disable fan) adjacent to wheelchair seats.
The plaintiffs in this case are represented by Richard Bernstein, a blind Michigan lawyer (and U of M alumnus) who himself successfully sued Northwestern Law School over its use of the LSAT, which did not offer Braille exam.
The law is likely on the plaintiffs' side. The DoJ "1%" interpretation is entitled to judicial deference. Not only are wheelchair patrons entitled to a certain proportion of seats; as established in a series of recent cases involving stadium seating at movie theaters, they must also be provided with equivalent lines of sight.
It is nevertheless interesting to speculate about exactly how many "accessible" seats the stadium should have. Currently, only 53 Michigan ticket holders request wheelchair seating. The difference between that number, and the number of seats requested by the plaintiffs, is striking.
Michigan's is of course not an ordinary arena, in the sense that games at the Big House are sold out, and there is a multi-year long waiting list to obtain season tickets. It is not unreasonable to think that the number of available handicapped accessible seats could affect the interest of disabled fans in making the multi-year donation commitments necessary to preserve a place on the waiting list. In an ideal world, stadiums would be built with some sort of modular seating that could accomodate the changing needs of fans. As new disabled patrons obtain seats, or as current season ticket holders age and develop disabilities that require wheelchairs, permanent seats could be relocated or adjusted to increase wheelchair-accesible space. Unfortunately, our engineering capabilities may not yet allow such an approach in a cost effective manner that wouldn't at some point result in a pile of chairs tossed onto the field.
Still, I'm not sure that lawyer Bernstein's strategy of comparing Michigan's stadium to recent renovations at OSU and Notre Dame--"Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame have recently undergone significant renovations compliant with ADA guidelines"--is likely to convince many in the Wolverine state to follow suit.