U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley announced Wednesday that his office reached an agreement with North Dakota State University over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the university's Sanford Health Athletic Complex.
"It's not a hostile takeover of their facilities, but it is an insistence upon compliance with this important civil rights legislation," Wrigley said, as reported by The Forum in Fargo.
The complaints were first brought by Keith Bjornson of Fargo in the spring of 2017, only months after the SHAC opened. A quadriplegic, Bjornson experienced the facility's accessibility shortcomings firsthand on numerous visits. He died in 2018 at the age of 67.
Tammy DeSautel of Fargo added her voice to what Bjornson started with a 2019 letter to the editor of The Forum after SHAC staff members denied her request for a chair to sit next to her disabled daughter during a high school basketball tournament. Currently, a companion of any wheelchair patron on the floor of the SHAC must sit in the row of seats directly behind.
"I don’t know if it had an impact on the findings," DeSautel said about going public with her story, "but it sure brought awareness."
The most significant accessibility issue involves wheelchair seating in the 5,685-seat main arena, built in 2016 as a renovation and extension of the 1970s-era Bison Arena.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Burkland said those patrons shouldn't be limited to "nosebleed seats" or have to sit on the arena floor alone. "They should have a similar offering of selections as someone who doesn't use a wheelchair," she said.
Burkland said under the agreement, 40 wheelchair spaces will have to be integrated and dispersed throughout the facility, and sight lines will have to be improved. Other modifications must be made to accessible parking and signs, concession stands, door handles, ramps and drinking fountains.
Jerry Christiansen, an accessibility specialist for Freedom Resource Center of Fargo, told The Forum that the issues should have been caught by architects, engineers, contractors or building inspectors.
Wrigley said NDSU was cooperative when made aware of the violations, and he doesn't believe they were intentional. "I think it does give you a glimpse that this was inadvertent, maybe clumsy, not as attentive as they needed to be," he said.
Mike Ellingson, director of facilities management at NDSU, didn't assign a cost estimate to the modifications but said the work would be scheduled around athletic seasons so as not to interfere with activities. Under the agreement, the changes must occur by Dec. 31.