Esha Mehta wants the University of Colorado to be more accessible for everyone — blind, sighted, transgender or "purple polka-dotted," she said.
Mehta, who is blind, is one of the students who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding lack of access for students with visual impairments on the Boulder campus.
Campus officials have said they are cooperating fully with the justice department investigation, which is ongoing, and are hiring an additional staff member to coordinate Americans with Disabilities Act compliance efforts.
"Nobody should be discriminated against because of their differences, and I don't want another student to go through what I've gone through," Mehta said. "We're so capable; we just don't have the tools."
According to a February letter from the justice department to CU, students say they can't access textbooks; campus email; websites for homework and course content; signs around campus; and a portal to register for classes, pay bills and set up meetings with advisers.
That means students must work with someone to complete routine tasks, fall behind in coursework and spend hours in frustration trying to access university services, according to the letter.
CU spokesman Ryan Huff said the university is working to make the university more accessible to the 39 students with visual impairments and four blind students on campus, steps that are outlined in the campus response to the justice department inquiry (see below).
"We are fully committed to complying with ADA and providing appropriate resources to our students, faculty and staff with disabilities," wrote Chancellor Phil DiStefano in a campus newsletter.
In an algebra course this spring, Mehta met with her professor outside of class time for four hours each week, and a teaching assistant for at least an hour, because she couldn't access the digital textbook or the online tool to submit homework and quizzes.
She's had similar experiences in other classes, she said.
Though she enjoys getting to know professors outside of lectures, Mehta was frustrated with how the class went. She ended up getting a B.
"I didn't get the grade I wanted, and I know a lot of it had to do with the fact that I didn't have a book, I didn't have the PowerPoint slides," she said.
Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said the problem stems from a disconnect between the office that procures technology and the office that supports students with disabilities.
The federation, which is the nation's largest organization of blind people with more than 50,000 members, is not involved in the CU complaints or investigation.
"What we're trying to do is get colleges and universities to think systematically about, 'OK, how do we make sure that when we implement new systems, when we're figuring out who to buy textbooks from and whose course management system we're going to buy, how do we make sure that those items accommodate our students who are blind?'" Danielsen said.
'Voice of the underdogs'
Mehta, 24, will graduate next year with a degree in psychology and a certificate in South Asian studies.
Since coming to CU, Mehta said she's found her voice. She's co-chair of the Council for Inclusion Leadership and Advocacy, a student group that raises awareness about campus access issues.
She also performs with the Interactive Theatre Project, a group that facilitates discussions about social issues.
Though the university creates committee after committee, and pledges to make the campus more accessible to everyone, Mehta said it's not enough.
Ultimately, she said she hopes the justice department investigation will prompt real change at CU and other universities.
"I want people to know that from the very basic level, you treat people with equity, you treat them with respect and give them the same chances as everyone else," she said. "I believe in the university, but at the same time I'm not going to let people push me around anymore. Somebody needs to be the voice of the underdogs."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106 or email@example.com.