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Visual impairment no obstacle for graduate

Michelle Perez, left, with 2013 graduate Melissa Finefrock, who is visually impaired.By Nancy Kolsti, News Promotions

Adjusting to life at a college or university - including studying, class assignments and living in a residence hall - is a challenge for most students.

English major Melissa Finefrock also often had to wait for weeks into the semester to access textbooks. Finefrock has been visually impaired from birth and books weren’t always easy to find in Braille and audio versions.

But blindness hasn’t stopped her.

Finefrock was recently recognized at the Honors Day Convocation for winning the Undergraduate Writing Award in Poetry from the Department of English, and she will graduate May 11 with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in literature. She also will earn an undergraduate certificate in rehabilitation studies, which she says will be a plus while job hunting.

“I’m hoping to do some kind of advocacy for people with disabilities,” she says. “The English degree has given me a well-rounded education, but my passion is helping people.”

During commencement, Finefrock, who uses a cane, will be escorted across the stage by Michelle Perez, a friend and assistant professor of early childhood studies in the College of Education.  

Finefrock is a 2009 graduate of Royce City High School in Rockwall County. She says she chose UNT partially because of the university’s Office of Disability Accommodation. The office provides adaptive computer lab devices such as screen readers, which read aloud texts on computer screens, including Microsoft Word documents and web pages.

Finefrock said the office staff scanned some of her books to convert them into accessible formats. She said reading books on computers allows her to highlight sentences and read pre-designated parts of the screen on demand, which she can’t do with audio books.     

“The first people I became friends with at UNT were Rebecca Cagle with the ODA, and Theresa Flowers, advisor in the English department,” Finefrock says.  “In UNT’s ODA, you’re not just a number. The staff wants you to succeed and will help you tell your professors what you need.”

Finefrock lived in a residence hall while attending the university. She became an advocate for other students with disabilities when she and another student submitted a request to the university’s Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Committee, asking that students with disabilities be informed about construction projects so they could change routes.

As a result, the Office of Disability Accommodation and Facilities and Construction began posting the monthly Construction Obstruction Report on their websites, and sending the information to students via e-mail.

Finefrock says she also enjoys doing “crazy things that people would not expect me to do,” like taking photographs and hiking. She’s also played acoustic guitar for nine years and travels regularly via Denton and Dallas public transportation to visit her grandparents.

“There are things that are terrifying to do when you’re blind, but you have to live,” she says.

After graduation, Finefrock hopes to work for an independent living agency that serves those with disabilities. She has volunteered for six years with REACH, or Rehabilitation, Education and Advocacy for Clients with Handicaps, which has offices in Dallas, Denton, Plano and Fort Worth.

(Photo by Gary Payne)

Posted on: Wed 08 May 2013

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