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Paralyzed Veterans win battle for Big House seating

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Imagine buying tickets to a sporting event and arriving at the stadium to find out you cannot get to or fit into your seat.

People in wheelchairs have dealt with this problem for ages, often opting out of attending public events.

A recent agreement between Novi-based Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the University of Michigan will change things however, and make more seats available at Michigan Stadium, better known as the Big House, throughout the course of the next two years.

“We believe this agreement will have universal implications,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Michigan chapter. “We think it’s a win-win for everyone. I think the university, we set a precedent for accessibility.”

Currently, Michigan Stadium has 81 handicap-accessible seats. By the start of the 2008 season, the stadium will have 177 handicap seats and 329, plus companion seating for each, by the start of the 2010 season.

“The law requires 1 percent. It was unrealistic to have them put in that many because the demand wouldn’t be there for 1,000,” Harris said. “In 2010, both sides will review the agreement.”

Aside from providing additional seating, Harris said the organization’s goal was to offer options to football patrons.

“The seating has to be dispersed throughout the seating bowl and have price ranges,” he said. “You don’t get the same experience when you’re so far away from the field.”

By the 2010 season, handicap-accessible seating will be available in most sections of the stadium, including the student section. Seating not used would be made available for non-handicapped fans.

“We ensured wheelchair seating is available in the student section. A lot of the time, it’s in the less desirable locations,” Harris said. “The students were really in our corner.”

The discussion reached a happy ending before things got ugly. The MPVA filed a complaint in federal court in April 2007 against the university and the issue picked up when the United States departments of Education and Justice aligned themselves with the MPVA last November.

“We were able to settle this before we went to trial. We were happy to resolve it before it went to trial,” Harris said. “They’re going to have to assure their bathrooms are accessible, concessions and you can get to the seating. From the time you park your vehicle in a handicap spot to the time you get to your seat without architectural barriers.”

Although the MPVA fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be honored for proper accommodations at Michigan Stadium, Harris said the group doesn’t plan on confronting other universities unless they hear complaints from patrons of those schools.

The MPVA is primarily focused on making sure veterans with paralyzing spinal cord injuries receive their veterans affairs health benefits. They also work with communities to ensure new structures are wheelchair accessible.

“I would say the majority of the calls I get are from non-veterans. We work with communities and it relates to government entities when it comes to designing buildings,” Harris said. “The main focus we have as an organization with spinal cord paralyzed veterans, mainly honorable, is to make sure they’re getting their benefits.”

The MPVA helps veterans with non-service injuries as well. Harris is a veteran of the Marine Corps., but he sustained a spinal cord injury afterward, in 1986, when he was in a non-service automobile accident. Since then, he has worked with the MPVA and the local community to promote accessibility for those in wheelchairs.

“We have a good working relationship with the city,” he said, noting he helped St. John Providence Park make sure its sidewalks were safe and accessible.

Novi News staff writer Chris Jackett can be reached at (248) 349-1700, ext. 122

By Chris Jackett
Novi News staff writer

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