The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is being forced to play defense after the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights informed campus officials late last month that its football stadium lacks adequate access for people with disabilities.
In the wake of that finding, some are wondering what it means for college facilities across the country that have undergone recent renovations.
Saying Michigan isn't complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the department is requiring that the institution make stadium updates or risk losing millions of dollars in federal financial assistance awarded annually. A spokeswoman said the university planned to respond to the letter even though it disagrees with the report's findings. ( Update: Late Monday, Michigan published on its Web site a strongly worded letter of rebuttal  to the federal agency's charges.)
At the heart of this case is whether Michigan is following federal guidelines that ask whether stadiums are "inaccessible and unusable" for fans in wheelchairs. The regulations cited in the OCR report are fairly broad, stating that a program doesn’t have to “make each of its existing facilities or every part of a facility accessible if alternative methods are effective in providing overall access." But it says renovations should make a good-faith effort to accommodate everyone.
More specifically, federal standards require that for sections of a stadium added or altered since 1991, ADA-compliant seats -- those that accommodate disabled fans or those with special needs -- should account for 20 of the first 1,000 over all and one of every 100 thereafer (the so-called 1 percent rule). Michigan Stadium, referred to as "The Big House," has 107,501 seats, about 97,000 of which have been added or altered in the past 15 years, according to the Education Department's estimate. To meet that requirement, Michigan would need to add about 900 seats for disabled fans; it already has 88 seats accessible to disabled people. ( Note: Because of an error, this paragraph has been altered from a previous version.)
Other large stadiums could stand to fail the ratio test, and the question is whether the OCR is setting a standard for stadium accessibility in the Michigan case that might make college athletics officials wonder if their facilities could come under fire.
"It might be a wake-up call," said Jim Kessler, director of disability services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and past president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. "I don't think schools should be alarmed, but they should look at what can be done to address the issues on their campus."
Stadium designers and college facilities directors often argue about what it takes to reach ADA compliance, says Thad Turnipseed, director of athletic facilities at the University of Alabama. Some follow a practice of counting a disabled fan's companion into the 1 percent, saying each party accounts for 0.5 percent. Others define the rule as 1 seat out of 100 for both the disabled fan and the companion (totaling 2 percent overall.)
Christy Horn, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's ADA compliance officer, said she takes the latter view. At Nebraska a 2006 renovation added more than 6,500 seats to the north section of the football stadium, bringing the overall facility capacity to 81,067. That section now seats 20,000 people and offers roughly 200 wheelchair-accessible seats.
"We have an old stadium like everyone else, and we have to work hard to find ways to be in compliance," she said. "It's a challenge because you are dealing with facilities that were designed in an era when people weren't thinking about access."
Pennsylvania State University's 2001 football stadium expansion that added more than 10,000 seats (for a total of more than 107,000) included the addition of 50 wheelchair spaces and dozens of locations around the concourse that could be made accessible. The stadium has 670 ADA seats and roughly 140 specifically designed for wheelchairs.
Mark Bodenschatz, associate athletic director of facilities and operations at Penn State, said typically at least two portable seats are removed to make room for one wheelchair-accessible one.
Horn thinks most colleges are adhering to the federally required ratio, or at least showing a good-faith effort to increase accessibility. "The OCR is saying that you have to demonstrate to us that you're making progress," she added.
Kessler agrees that colleges, in large part, do their best to make venues accessible. But given the designs of some stadiums, he said it's "unrealistic" to expect everyone to follow ratio guidelines.
"Some of the requirements just aren't feasible," he said. "It's like going in and asking someone to change Fenway Park. That's difficult to do based on the structure."
Mark Lichter, senior associate director of architecture for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the group understands that stadium designs and construction budgets can be impediments. He is as interested in seat quality as seat quantity.
"We're not asking for unrealistic additions," he said. "We'd much rather see seats dispersed throughout the stadium. If [colleges] can do that and integrate the seats, we'd maybe look at extenuating circumstances in which a certain number can't be met."
Added Carol Peredo Lopez, director of architecture for the veterans' group: "In most cases, that ratio can be met. One percent isn't that much when you think about it."
Colleges can't alter parts of a stadium without looking at ways to increase accessibility, she said. Lopez and OCR allege Michigan did just that. The letter also says Michigan failed to turn over requested information about the stadium renovation projects.
Kelly Cunningham, a Michigan spokeswoman, said the university has provided all necessary documentation, and that the stadium has undergone "repairs" but not "alterations that change the makeup of the stadium." An expansion project, set to begin after this football season, is expected to triple the number of wheelchair seating available, and allow Michigan to comply with the 1 percent rule for new seating.
"The issue of providing accessible seats is vital to us," Cunningham said. "One way to think about this is as a house built 80 years ago. You build a wing and keep it up to date, but you don't always retool the entire house."
Lopez said Michigan's changes were "too extensive" to call cosmetic.
And OCR says the 88 wheelchair seats are far too few. They are limited to the end zones, which don't provide those fans with the same viewing opportunities as others in the stadium, the report argues.
Federal officials are advising Michigan to:
- Add wheelchair seating around the entire circumference of the stadium, in both higher and lower sections.
- Decrease the slopes of ramps leading into restrooms and other locations, and also add handrails.
- Widen stalls in the bathroom and lower counter heights at concession stands.
The university also faces legal action from the Michigan chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America that cites many of the same concerns that are listed in the OCR letter.
Mike Harris, executive director of the Michigan veterans' association, said other old college stadiums that have been renovated added wheelchair-accessible seats that are dispersed throughout.
"Michigan needs to act in the spirit of the law," Harris said. "They've taken the forefront on addressing affirmative action, and we're asking them to take up the issue of access for the disabled community with the same passion. Hopefully this will set the precedent."
Michigan, Nebraska, Alabama and Penn State all say they have never had to turn down any ticket requests from disabled fans.
Alabama's most recent renovation, completed last year, added roughly 9,000 seats to its football stadium. Turnipseed, the facilities director, said 225 wheelchair-accessible seats were added.
The stadium has 838 seats for disabled fans spread throughout and a total of roughly 90,000 seats overall. Turnipseed said the goal is to be able to comply with the 1 percent rule for the entire stadium -- not just seats recently added or renovated -- even though most were in place before the access law went into effect.