For fans with special needs, new stadiums will be game changers

Claudia Fuglie, of Robbinsdale, Minn., is a fan of the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, Wild and Saints. But she says some of their buildings have been less than accommodating for people in wheelchairs, like her. She's on a committee working to improve the design of both stadiums under construction in the Twin Cities this year. Tim Nelson/MPR News

The Metrodome is nearly rubble, and Claudia Fuglie's fine with that.

Cramped and hard to navigate, the old Vikings stadium made it difficult for her and others who use wheelchairs to get around. Built before the federal Americans with Disabilities Act required public buildings to accommodate disabled people, the dome offered only about 190 spots for special needs fans.

"If you had a large wheelchair, you couldn't get into the spots," said Fuglie, a former Metro Mobility reservations agent from Robbinsdale. "When you wanted to get somewhere, you just couldn't get anywhere. There were people all over the place."

The experience will be much better at the new Vikings stadium, as well as the new Saints ballpark under construction in St. Paul. Taking a cue from the Minnesota Twins' Target Field, the new football and minor league baseball venues are being designed to accommodate fans like never before.

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The Vikings new home will more than double accommodations for special needs fans. The current design calls for 658 wheelchair and companion seats, integrated into all the different types of seating in the stadium. Suites will have removable drink rails to accommodate wheelchairs.

The design changes go deeper than that, said Michele Kelm-Helgen, who chairs the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the state agency in charge of building the new billion dollar project.

"It's everything from charging stations that are located at wheelchair height. It's public entrances that need to be accessible," she said. "It's closed captioning on the television monitors, its having assisted listening devices at all the ticket windows so people with hearing difficulties can get those listening devices."

Other design elements will include concession counters low enough for people in wheel chairs, closed captioning on the stadium's video boards, and 11 elevators, up from just three at the Metrodome.

Builders are also planning room for one of the less-acknowledged elements of disability planning: friends. Both new stadiums will feature group accommodations, including seating for multiple companions for people with disabilities.

"With the facility we're creating, you're going to have the ability to have up to three or four able bodied friends in your group," said Vikings spokesman Jeff Anderson.

That's crucial to the fan experience, people with disabilities say.

Jenna Johnson, of Woodbury, uses a wheelchair to get around, and says the experience at Twin Cities stadiums has been difficult at times. She's hoping for better accommodations to see the St. Paul Saints in particular. Her social worker, Winna Bernard and her service dog, Angel sometimes accompany her. Tim Nelson/MPR News

Jenna Johnson, who lives in Woodbury and uses a wheelchair, remembers going on what she thought was going to be a girl's night out at a recent Saints game in Midway Stadium.

It turned out to be a girl night out.

"Me and another caregiver were sitting in a different row, and I was wanting to be with my friends, and they split us up," she recalled.

The new Saints park will have four times as many accessible seats as Midway, said team owner Mike Veeck. Braille will also be common throughout the stadium to accommodate people like his daughter, Rebecca, who is blind.

The Saints stadium is being built with a different philosophy, Veeck added.

"It's not always the number of people that respond, or that can utilize your service, but the fact that they aren't singled out," he said. "These seats, for example, blend in, you won't be able to look up at any section and go, 'Oop, there's the handicapped section.'"

And as the population ages, those accommodations will be important to all kinds of fans, said Margo Imdieke Cross with the Minnesota State Council on Disability.

"For the next 20 to 30 years we're going to see an absolute surge in the demands on accessible seating, on all accessibility features," she said. "So anybody who plans anything that's going to be standing for more than a couple of years, has to take that into consideration, because the demand is only going to increase."

The Lowertown Ballpark is scheduled to open its doors, and ramps and elevators, to everybody, in 2015. The Vikings stadium will be finished in 2016.