Column: Taking a Seat at Michigan Stadium

Because people stood up, people with disabilities can sit down

It is always nice to have a place to sit – and thanks to advocates for persons with disabilities, there are more seats for people with disabilities at the University of Michigan’s “Big House.”

Throughout history, people in America have had to stand up for their rights. It was no different in this case. Discrimination about adequate seating arrangements for persons with disabilities at UM goes back decades.

Prior to the recent major renovation of Michigan Stadium, there were only 88 out of 107,000 seats that accommodated someone in a wheelchair – and they were lousy seats in the end zone. UM signed a consent agreement to more than double the “handicapped” seating to 188 after a lawsuit was filed by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Many of those are better seats closer to the roar of the action.

The improvements are not over. There are plans in the works to add an additional 145 wheelchair seats to the stadium by the kickoff of the 2010 season. That will bring the wheelchair capacity to 329 seats. The university also made modifications to address other mobility issues within the stadium.

When the Paralyzed Veterans of America needed an advocate to force the university “to do the right thing” and add adequate seating during the planned renovation of the stadium, they dialed 1-800-CALL-SAM. They got a tireless advocate of equal rights, Richard Bernstein, to take their case. As they say, the rest is history!

Bernstein, a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, has taken on many individuals and institutions that discriminate against people.

“It took a lot of work by many people to make this a reality,” said Bernstein. “(UM regents) Kathy White and Larry Dietich deserve a great deal of credit for championing the rights of persons with disabilities. This fight was more than simply access to a football game – it was about rights of persons with disabilities, everywhere! In the end, the university did the right thing and all citizens are now benefiting.”

The word is getting out that people with disabilities can access the “Big House” and do not have to suffer the indignities that a lack of accommodations for someone in a wheelchair often brings. Bernstein has a history of eliminating indignities but even he and his powerful family law firm, Bernstein and Bernstein, cannot address the indignities UM has suffered on the stadium Astroturf this year.

More and more of us, due to a disability at birth, accident or bought about due to the aging process, are in need of the rights of the Americans with Disability Act.

Jim Dehem, the president and CEO of Community Living Services, a nonprofit organization that serves more than 2,000 people in Michigan with disabilities, said this about the victory: “When we discriminate against one group of people, we are denying everyone. This issue was more than a seat at a football game, it was about following the law and the very principles this great country was founded on.”

For me, a “Sparty” and a TAB (Temporarily Abled Body) who only needs a seat at UM once every other year when Michigan State plays the Maize and Blue, this change gave my friends who – for some unknown reason – are rabid UM football fans a chance to sit and cheer for their beloved team.

The wheelchair accessible seats at UM are a victory for fans of the law, fairness and decency. We all owe the Paralyzed Veterans of America and lawyer and advocate Richard Bernstein a debt of gratitude for fighting this fight on behalf of all Americans.

Thank you for standing up, so everyone has the right to sit down!

Tom Watkins, an Ann Arbor area resident, served as Michigan superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2005, and was the state’s mental health director from 1986 to 1990. He can be reached at


  1. November 23, 2008 at 12:13 pm | permalink

    That is a great article. I am a teacher of the visually impaired, and the discrimination that my kids face (at school and in life) is sometimes overwhelming. But the way the rise up to meet these challenges is inspiring and overwhelming!

  2. By Juliew
    November 23, 2008 at 12:14 pm | permalink

    I live two blocks from the Stadium and there was a noticable increase this year in the number of people in wheelchairs going to the game. In the previous 11 years we have lived in our house, we had never parked anyone who had to use a wheelchair to get to the Stadium. This year we had three different people park who used wheelchairs. It might not sound like much, but multiply that by all the parking near the Stadium and you can see there obviously was a need. It was good to see that these fans were finally able to participate fully.