Judge Orders Arena Inspected for Accessibility
By Toni Locy
A federal judge yesterday ordered an inspection of the new MCI Center to ensure that his orders on seating arrangements for the disabled have been followed.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said the inspection should occur next month on a day when there are no events scheduled at the arena. That way, the judge said, experts for a group representing paralyzed veterans and for Abe Pollin, owner of the National Basketball Association's Wizards and National Hockey Association's Capitals, can examine all of the wheelchair-accessible seats.
At issue is whether seats for the disabled-up to 180, depending on the event-are easily accessible and whether occupants have unobstructed views. The Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a lawsuit in 1996 seeking a seating arrangement that complied with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"It does seem to me that the [paralyzed veterans group] should have a right to ... make sure that the final design approved by the court has been complied with," Hogan said.
But the judge appeared willing to give the center some leeway by ordering that the inspection not take place until after a view-obstructing railing in one section-the subject of the most serious complaints so far-is replaced with tempered glass. "I do think we have to realize that it's a new arena and it has just opened," Hogan said.
In December 1996, Hogan ordered the center's builders to come up with a design that included wheelchair-accessible seating throughout the arena. Eventually, the judge ordered that 78 percent to 88 percent of the arena's seats for the disabled must have unobstructed sightlines.
Paul Mogin, an attorney for MCI Center, said that arena officials are still putting the finishing touches on the facility, which opened last month. So far, he said, only about 18 of the 180 seats for the disabled are used for each sporting event.
Mogin said the center had ordered a new railing for a section in the lower bowl so people in wheelchairs could see better. He said designers also were forced to eliminate three wheelchair-accessible seats in a section where, it turned out, the arena's sound system is located.
Hogan said he had been to the center twice to see George Washington University's basketball team and the Capitals play, and joked that someone had suggested that he go along on the inspection and schedule it for the night of Feb. 21, when the reigning NBA champion Chicago Bulls come to town. "I'm not going to take that up," he said.
John Bollinger, 51, a wheelchair user from Alexandria, said he wants the veterans group to keep the pressure on to send a message, not just to MCI Center but to builders of other arenas across the country, that they must be "as accessible as possible" for everyone.
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