Lawsuits have a funny way of dictating policy.
Ohio State University and the University of Michigan are a case in point.
Confronted with litigation in recent years involving the Americans with Disabilities Act, both schools announced within weeks of each other last month that they would start providing close-captioning for the hearing impaired in their football stadiums.
“Our athletic department and our university are committed to creating a welcoming and fully accessible environment for all members of our community, including students, faculty, staff and guests,” said UM Director of Athletics Bill Martin. “This on-going commitment includes insuring that every visitor to Michigan Stadium has an enjoyable and memorable experience.”
While Martin does not directly address the legal aspects of the decision, the record is clear. Michigan was sued two years ago concerning the seating for disabled patrons at Michigan Stadium. The school responded with several initiatives. Consequently, additional ADA seating will be made available throughout the stadium prior to the 2010 season. Also, all restrooms and points of sale will be accessible with the exception of the few restrooms that remain below grade. In addition, over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, aisles and seats will be widened, and hand rails will be installed to assist fans with mobility and visual impairments.
The close captioning in Ann Arbor will be made available on both video boards and the concourse televisions, and will include all public address announcements and on-field officials’ calls.
Ohio State made a similar announcement last month when OSU Associate Vice President and AD Gene Smith announced that captioning would be available on televisions in the concourse area. Specifically, attendees get text translations of calls made by on-field officials, play descriptions, and all other audio announcements at the game, according to the University.
The impetus for that decision may well have been a lawsuit brought by Vincent Sabino, a hearing-impaired OSU fan, who initiated a lawsuit against the university on June 30.
The University moved to dismiss the case on September 18, arguing that it did not know the plaintiff was disabled, and the plaintiff never requested any accommodations from OSU due to his alleged disability.
Sabino is represented by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the law firm Willis & Willis Co., L.P.A.
In 2006, the NAD filed a lawsuit, Feldman v. Pro-Football, Inc., against the Washington Redskins for not providing captioning at their football games at FedExField. In September 2008, the court ruled that “the ADA requires Defendants to provide deaf and hard of hearing fans equal access to the aural information broadcast over the stadium bowl public address system at FedExField, which includes music with lyrics, play information, advertisements, referee calls, safety/emergency information, and other announcements.” That case is pending appeal.
Laren E. Knoll, attorney at the law firm of Willis & Willis, represents Sabino in the OSU case. She told Sports Litigation Alert that the respective decisions are an example of schools taking “the necessary steps to ensure equal access for individuals who are deaf or hearing impaired. I cannot speak to Michigan’s efforts but I am very encouraged by the changes made by OSU to date. I appreciate that OSU has stepped to the forefront of this issue and is setting an example for other college athletic programs to involve deaf or hearing-impaired individuals in the sporting event, while the individual is in attendance.
“For my client, an OSU football game is now an entirely different and wonderful experience. OSU has demonstrated that captioning is a readily and reasonably achievable solution for all universities to implement. It is my hope that universities and all other athletic venues will follow suit without incentive forced by litigation.”