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Department of Justice intervenes in discrimination lawsuit against university

By Victoria Slater, Managing Editor

When 21-year-old Aleeha Dudley, a former Miami University student who is blind, sued the university for discrimination in January 2014, she had no idea it would become a federal case.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice is intervening in her lawsuit, supporting her claims that the university denied her access to the proper tools and equipment she needed to learn, and failed to accommodate disabled students as a whole.

The Justice Department has since concluded that Miami University has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and will proceed to reach a resolution out of court.

Dudley, a resident of New Paris, Ohio, chose Miami because of its close proximity to home and its navigable campus, and also because the disability office seemed to show a willingness to provide for her and other students with disabilities.

She enrolled at Miami as zoology major in 2011, and, guided by her life-long passion for animals and work with horses, she set on the path toward becoming a veterinarian. But as soon as she arrived on campus and started her classes inside vast lecture halls crowded with hundreds of students, she said she struggled to keep up.

"I had issues since day one," said Dudley, who has now withdrawn from Miami. "I just couldn't learn the same way as my peers without the proper resources."

To read and write, Dudley uses a screen reader that can read aloud written text or send it to another device that translates it to Braille. According to court documents, Miami provided Dudley with copies of her textbooks that she fed to her screen reader, only to discover the text was incompatible with her device.

In other classes, she was required to access online materials through forums like Niihka, Miami's learning management system, that were also incompatible with her devices. In addition, she said The Degree Audit Report system (DARs), which tracks a student's academic progress, was also extremely difficult to navigate without the use of a human aide, many of whom were incompetent or poorly trained, according to the initial court filing.

After coming to Miami as a scholarship recipient and with a high school GPA of 3.6, Dudley said she began failing classes, jeopardizing her chance at becoming a veterinarian.

This prompted her to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio last January, alleging the university discriminated against her because of her disability. She sought counsel with The Ohio Disability Rights Law and Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Columbus, and received support from the National Federation of the Blind.

"A person with a disability has every right to be on an equal playing field with their peers," Dudley said. "Denying disabled students access to the tools they need to succeed at the same level as their peers is wrong. We all should be able to compete at the same level, whatever that takes."

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In their court filing, the Department of Justice cited several other examples to support its case, including instances when a visually impaired Miami student was required to watch a video with no audio descriptions in class, and when a deaf student was given a video to watch with incorrect captioning.

The department demands Miami provide the proper tools disabled students need to succeed, and pay damages to those students who may have not received adequate accommodation.

Miami University denies all allegations related to the case.

"We take our obligations under the American Disabilities Act very seriously. Miami provides extensive resources and accommodations for our disabled students, and will continue to do so," said Claire Wagner, director of University News and Communications.

The Office of Disability Resources at Miami caters to about 300 students a year, and to each differently.

"Our staff is passionate about advancing and sustaining an environment of equal access, diversity and inclusiveness for all members of the university community," said Andrew Zeisler in a January 2014 Miami Student article.

Despite these efforts, Dudley's attorney, Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt of Disability Rights Ohio, said the lack of accessibility for disabled students is a common vice on college campuses.

"Miami is not alone in this. It's a very common problem in higher education," she said, citing lack of resources and proper communication between departments about a disabled student's specific needs as the biggest hindrances.

While the case is still in its initial proceedings with a trial date yet to be set, Dudley, who will be attending Ohio State University in the fall, is hopeful.

"My goal is to make things better for the next person. That is something that I strongly believe in," she said. "A lot of issues need to be addressed, and if I don't come out and say it, who will?"