Friday, October 31, 2008

Football fans cheer newly accessible Michigan stadium

From The Ann Arbor News in Michigan. In the picture, Joe Yakas, 79, of Canton, Mich., and his daughter Julie Mannlein applaud as the University of Michigan Wolverines run onto the field at the newly accessible Michigan Stadium.

Joe Yakas, 79, of Canton, who has attended University of Michigan football games since he graduated from U-M in 1952, these days uses a wheelchair and has difficulty with his vision. Attending U-M football games in recent years had become an unsatisfying chore, but this year things are different.

From his previous handicapped seats in the endzone, he needed binoculars to see much of the game action.

"But I don't need them here," he said Saturday as he sat in a long row of people using the new wheelchair seating on the east side of the stadium during the Michigan State game.

His daughter, Julie Mannlein, who goes to games with him, enjoyed having a seat as she accompanied her father. In prior years, the wheelchair seating areas in the end zones could become so crowded, she said, "sometimes I had to sit on the floor or between his feet."

Dick Kaufman, 85, of Grosse Isle, has been coming to watch the Wolverines since the 1930s. Despite the loss to MSU, at least the seat on about the 20-yard-line was good this year. "It's unbelievable, really," he said of the new arrangements.

The views of Yakas and Kaufman were echoed up and down the line of special seating Saturday by fans thrilled with the changes that improve accessibility and services for people in wheelchairs.

Complaints about handicapped seating at Michigan Stadium go back a decade, culminating in a lawsuit filed against U-M in 2007 by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. In March, the university signed a consent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the veterans group to resolve the lawsuit.

Before this season, the stadium, with a capacity of more than 107,000, had only 88 wheelchair seats, split between the end zones on Row 72. The stadium can now seat 184 wheelchair users, many along Row 54 across the east side of the stadium bowl.

U-M also changed the orientation of the wheelchair seats in the end zones to improve sight lines and increased the number of accessible bathrooms. More parking for the disabled was added, and concourse ramps are less steep and easier for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

More improvements are coming. Another 145 wheelchair seats will be added at several locations in the stadium bowl by the start of the 2010 season, bringing the total wheelchair seating to 329 people.

Each wheelchair seat is next to a seat for an able-bodied companion.

All of the work, U-M officials previously said, will cost an extra $2 million but won't delay the ongoing $226 million renovation and expansion project. It wraps up in 2010 with the opening of two sideline structures containing luxury boxes and club seats, among other improvements. Disabled fans are attending the games in growing numbers.

"Word is getting around that these are available, that they're great seats," said Marty Bodnar, associate athletic director for ticketing and marketing. "And so we're hearing more and more from people who want to bring family members who happen to be disabled."

Out of the 184 wheelchair seats available in the stadium this season, 137 were occupied for the opening game against Utah, 146 for the second home game against Miami of Ohio, and 157 for the third home game against Wisconsin, said Bodnar.

"It just shows you that there are people out there that will use these seats, once they become available," said Michael Harris, executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America.

As word gets out - U-M agreed to a comprehensive marketing plan that is still being rolled out - attendance will likely increase.

"If you make a facility accessible, if you make it safe, if you allow people to use it, disabled people will come in droves, and they will love it," said Richard Bernstein, the attorney for the veterans group.

On game days, Ben Kaplan looks after the needs of people in the wheelchair seating sections as head of special duty operations at the stadium. He estimated 80 percent or more of the seats were full at the most recent games.

Wheelchairs are now stationed near the stadium gates, he said, and ticket takers ask fans who have mobility impairments if they would like help getting to their regular seats, or if they would like to swap those tickets for wheelchair seating.

Marti Moore, 58, of Kalamazoo, sat bundled up in a blue Michigan sweatshirt and blue blanket Saturday. While she loves coming to games with her husband, who has had season tickets for 30 years, she needs to use a wheelchair to get around after tearing her hamstrings and can't get to those seats.

"I couldn't have come to the games with him if they didn't have it," she said of the new wheelchair seating.

"I am absolutely thrilled to be here," she said. "I would have been really upset not to have seen it. I've had to watch some of them at home on the couch, and it's not the same."