FARGO — Local disability advocates are applauding a federal settlement concerning accessibility complaints at North Dakota State University’s premier multi-sport arena, but wish it wasn't needed in the first place.

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley announced on Wednesday, Jan. 29, that his office reached an agreement with NDSU over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, known as the SHAC.

"It's not a hostile takeover of their facilities, but it is an insistence upon compliance with this important civil rights legislation," said Wrigley, referring to the 1990 federal act prohibiting discrimination based on disability.

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The complaints were first brought by Keith Bjornson of Fargo in the spring of 2017, only months after the SHAC opened.

Bjornson, a quadriplegic after breaking his neck in a diving accident as a teenager, was a big sports fan who attended numerous events at the SHAC and experienced the accessibility shortcomings firsthand.

He wasn't able to realize the result of his efforts, however, as he died at age 67 in late 2018.

Tammy DeSautel of Fargo added her voice to what Bjornson started with a 2019 letter to The Forum's editor after staff members at the SHAC denied her request for a chair to sit next to her disabled daughter during a high school basketball tournament.

Macy Stuart is pictured in a wheelchair seating area in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex at North Dakota State University on March 2, 2019. Her mother, Tammy DeSautel, requested a chair to sit next to her daughter but was refused. Instead, DeSautel sat on the edge of the metal bleachers so she could be closer to attend to her daughter's needs. Special to The Forum
Macy Stuart is pictured in a wheelchair seating area in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex at North Dakota State University on March 2, 2019. Her mother, Tammy DeSautel, requested a chair to sit next to her daughter but was refused. Instead, DeSautel sat on the edge of the metal bleachers so she could be closer to attend to her daughter's needs. Special to The Forum

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, but it sure brought awareness," said DeSautel about going public with her story.

'Clumsy, not as attentive'

The SHAC opened in 2016 as an extension and renovation of the former Bison Sports Arena, originally built in 1970.

The most significant accessibility issue involves wheelchair seating in the 5,685-seat main 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.

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.

The interior of the Sanford Health Athletic Complex is seen Nov. 2, 2016, at North Dakota State University. Forum file photo
The interior of the Sanford Health Athletic Complex is seen Nov. 2, 2016, at North Dakota State University. Forum file photo


'Fell through the cracks'

Wrigley said being reactive to compliance matters tends to be more expensive than being proactive.

Mike Ellingson, director of facilities management at NDSU, said he didn't know how much the modifications would cost.

However, he did say 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 of this year.

Ellingson also said the school will look into how this "fell through the cracks," and what can be done to be sure it doesn't happen again.

Jerry Christiansen, an accessibility specialist for Freedom Resource Center of Fargo, said he is pleased but disappointed that any new facility is not ADA compliant.

He said the issues should have been caught by architects, engineers, contractors or building inspectors.

"Even with those four layers, it’s often missed. It’s frustrating," Christiansen said.

Few result in litigation

The case was handled by the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, and most of that division's work focuses on ADA complaints.

Few complaints result in litigation, however.

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, right, talks about the settlement reached between his office and North Dakota State University over accessibility issues at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, or SHAC. Also pictured are Asst. U.S. Attorneys Melissa Burkland, left, and Tara Iversen, center. Chris Flynn / The Forum
U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, right, talks about the settlement reached between his office and North Dakota State University over accessibility issues at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, or SHAC. Also pictured are Asst. U.S. Attorneys Melissa Burkland, left, and Tara Iversen, center. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Iversen said most cases either end with an informal letter of resolution, where the party agrees to make the changes requested, or in a settlement agreement, like in the NDSU case, which holds more weight.

“If someone doesn't comply with a settlement agreement, we can then go into court to try to enforce it,” Iversen said.

Anyone who wishes to file a complaint alleging accessibility non-compliance may do so online at ada.gov or contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office at 701-297-7400.