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Blind student sues Miami University

Junior claims Miami violating federal law, which school denies.

A Miami University junior, who has been blind since birth, says she has struggled academically to complete her zoology degree because new technology used by the school is not accessible to her.

This is a common problem today for blind students on college campuses, advocates say, and has prompted Aleeha Dudley to take legal action against Miami.

Dudley, a New Paris native who plans to pursue veterinary school, has filed a federal lawsuit that claims Miami’s use of technology that is not accessible to the disabled blocked her from completing coursework, kept her from being able to read textbooks and other class materials and made it impossible for her to order food or do laundry on touchscreen systems without assistance.

She said her grades have suffered since she enrolled at Miami in 2011 because course materials were provided in a way that she could not use a text-to-speech software, or she was not provided materials in Braille or as tactile graphics to represent visual components, according to the lawsuit filed Friday with support from the National Federation of the Blind and Disability Rights Ohio.

“I am frustrated, but the biggest of my goals is that I really want to help somebody who comes behind me as a blind student pursuing science,” she said. “Maybe not only at Miami but at other universities so that they don’t have these same frustrations, and they’re not nearly as exhausted and frustrated as I am about this.”

Dudley graduated high school with a 3.6 grade point average. But at Miami, she has earned a 2.64 GPA, which has “jeopardized, if not destroyed” her chances of gaining admittance to veterinary school, according to her lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio..

‘Miami is not alone’

Her lawsuit likens the inaccessible technology to a public place with “unneeded entrance steps and no ramp.”

“Miami is not alone in this. It’s a very common problem in higher education,” said Dudley’s attorney, Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt of Disability Rights Ohio. ”

“Ms. Dudley is only one of many blind students who experience frustrating and unnecessary barriers to a full and equal education in our nation’s institutions of higher education,” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a statement.

“Technology, if properly designed and implemented, can make it possible for students like Ms. Dudley to experience an equal education to an extent unheard of in the past, but Miami University has ignored its legal and moral obligations and failed to procure accessible technology and take other steps necessary to give Ms. Dudley the full benefit of her educational experience,” he said.

Miami said its office of disability resources is currently serving about 335 students and 65 faculty and staff, and is committed to the success of all students and equal access, said university spokeswoman Claire Wagner in a statement.

“The specific needs of each student and employee with a disability are different and we determine how to accommodate those unique needs by engaging in an interactive dialogue or process with each individual,” she said. “That process involves the individual making our Office of Disability Resources aware of his or her needs, after which that office works him or her to provide an accommodation. That process is followed in every case.”

She added: “Because this case involves a current student, Miami University will not comment on the complaint other than to deny the allegations.”

Seeks to repeat classes

Dudley’s suit also alleges that aids provided by Miami were insufficient or untrained and she could not participate in all laboratory activities. It says Miami failed to provide her equal access to programs and activities, which violates federal law.

The National Federation of the Blind said it has been involved in lawsuits against Penn State and Florida State universities in the past, according to spokesman Chris Danielsen.

“Sadly, this is not the first time that blind students and/or the National Federation of the Blind have had to file suit against a university, and we fear that it will not be the last,” he said. “Miami is not a rogue player here. Despite warnings from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice about inaccessible technology and the clear requirements of the law, universities routinely ignore or do not fully comply with requirements that they treat their students with disabilities equally.”

The lawsuit by Dudley, who has scholarships and also pays tuition, seeks to force Miami to expunge her grades; pay her tuition and costs to repeat the first three years of her undergraduate education; pay her attorney’ fees and costs, compensatory damages and any other relief decided by the court; and to declare the university has continues to violate Title II of ADA and the Rehabilitation Act and abide by an injunction to stop the university from doing so in the future.

Dudley said plans to continue her education at Miami this semester and hopes to graduate from Miami, as well.

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