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USM Transfer Student Overcomes Disabilities, Pursuing Dreams with Support from MS Hearing-Vision Project

Fri, 09/10/2021 - 16:58pm | By: David Tisdale

Wilicia Kelly McClendonShe believed she could, so she did.

That’s the motto of Wilicia Kelly McClendon, a transfer student who begins her first semester at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) this fall, bringing with her to the Hattiesburg campus a determination that has served her well as she has overcome obstacles to pursue her dream of earning a college degree.

That goal might have been derailed if not for her own sheer will to succeed, the support of fiercely supportive parents, and the assistance of the federally supported Mississippi Hearing-Vision Project (MHVP), headquartered at USM. MHVP funding comes through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Wilicia's parents learned that when she was a year old, she was profoundly deaf. Cochlear implants have brought some improvement to her hearing, and her ability to read lips is also an asset. Later, at age 10, it was discovered that she had vision challenges associated with night blindness and peripheral vision issues due to a condition known as “RP” or Retinitis pigmentosa. 

The family moved to Laurel, Mississippi from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, staying with a friend while trying to decide whether to stay in Mississippi or move back to start over in New Orleans after the storm destroyed their home. They chose to stay in Laurel, which turned out to be a blessing as Wilicia greatly benefited from services provided at USM’s DuBard School for Children with Language Disorders. She went on to graduate from Laurel High School and then earned 2 degrees AAA and AAS at Jones College (Jones County Junior College). At USM, she plans to pursue a BS Degree in child development and after graduation, open her own daycare to work with deaf-blind children.

Before making it to USM, Wilicia encountered challenges throughout K-12 in the form of misunderstandings and even indifference and discrimination from some fellow students and educators who either weren’t aware of her disabilities and or were unwilling to accommodate her academically or in extracurricular activities. Despite these challenges, Wilicia forged ahead, with the unwavering advocacy of her mother and father.

Her parents, Wilbur and Alicia McClendon, believe that because of Wilicia’s unique ways, she didn’t want others to know of her disabilities and be treated any different than her peers.

“We feel at times she was denied opportunities due to her disabilities,” Alicia McClendon said. “Nonetheless, Wilicia never let that decide her fate in life.

“I have been Wilicia’s primary advocate throughout her school years and knew what was best for her,” Alicia McClendon continued. “So, I tell parents that no one knows your kids better than you. Get to know their teachers, program directors and all the outside services who suggest and make decisions about your child’s education, communicate with them often, get a team to stick with, emphasize solutions for your child, and focus on the importance of their future.”

One of those outside services that the family engaged with during Wilicia’s senior year in high school were those offered through MHVP, after the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services reached out to the family and introduced them to its director, Toni Hollingsworth. The project is supported through a federal grant, which has been renewed through 2023, that provides a variety of support mechanisms for educators and families of children and young adults who experience concurrent hearing and vision loss which may also include other disabilities.

MHVP support includes specialized training and technical assistance to families, administrators, educators, and service providers of children (birth to 21) who have both a hearing and visual impairment. Children and youth with varying degrees of hearing and vision losses are eligible for inclusion under this grant (very few children who qualify for services through the project are totally deaf and blind, even though the combination of both primary senses affected is referred to as deaf-blindness under IDEA). Qualified individuals may also have additional disabilities, such as cognitive, motor disabilities or/and medical conditions. 

“The end goal of MHVP is to strengthen each family’s and educational teams’ efforts to ensure greater access to the educational curriculum for each individual learner,” Hollingsworth said.

Services provided through MHVP include, but are not limited to, the following:

*Online deaf-blind learning modules
*Transition support and services
*Direct support for educational staff
*Team collaborations
*Professional and paraprofessional development opportunities
*Family workshops, support and networking
*Long-term support and expertise to participating families for navigating their child’s educational journey

The McClendon family praised MHVP as a valuable resource that played a key part in Wilicia’s journey to where she is today. “I believe having the Mississippi Hearing-Vision Project available in Wilicia’s senior year of high school was critical to her momentum in attaining not only her high school diploma, but graduating from Jones with two degrees and now making the transition to USM,” Wilbur McClendon said.

USM has always been Wilicia’s dream college since she attended DuBard School for Language Disorders. “Now I’m living my dream as I start my first semester as a Golden Eagle,” she said.

Hollingsworth believes Wilicia’s success story is still unfolding. “Wilicia has already achieved great things, and now that she is at USM, I know she will continue to soar like an eagle,” she said.