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Olivia Andersen, CEO of Hear for You, an organisation that mentors young deaf people

Olivia Andersen is the founder / Director of Hear For You, a mentoring organisation which assists young deaf people to achieve anything they want in life.  Profoundly deaf herself, Olivia’s motto in life is ‘With the right mindset, anything is possible.  Deafness is a learning opportunity, not a disability.’ Olivia’s achievements include degrees in Design and Business, working for marie claire magazine, backpacking through Europe, Central America and Africa, and winning a Sir Winston Churchill Fellowship.  She lives in Sydney with her husband Thomas who is hearing and their newborn daughter, Camilla.

Julie: Olivia, thank you for agreeing to share your story for the Breaking the Sound Barriers book and blog.

Olivia: No problem, Julie, it’s an absolute pleasure!

Julie:  In order for our readers to understand a little bit of background about you, we should start at the very beginning.  Were you born profoundly deaf?

Olivia: I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at eight months old. My parents had an ABO blood incompatibility and I became jaundiced after I was born, which required a blood exchange when I was three days old.  It was always assumed that the jaundice caused my deafness, although recent tests, despite being inconclusive, suggest that it could be genetic.

Julie:  Your parents were both hearing so what did they do?

Specialist doctors told my parents that I’d never be able to speak or go to a mainstream school. Thankfully Mum and Dad had the attitude that anything could be achieved with the right support. Immediately they enrolled me at an auditory verbal early intervention program for deaf children.  I also had weekly speech therapy at a hearing centre.

Julie:  You are profoundly deaf, but wear hearing aids.  Do they help you hear everything?

Olivia: People often ask how and what it is I actually hear. That’s not easy to say because I don’t know what ‘normal’ hearing is.  I do know however that I find it difficult to follow conversations in a big group. I can’t use the telephone normally. It is tough following television and movies without subtitles. I can’t hear the words to songs or naturally appreciate music. I would find it difficult to take part in debates or public discussions.  And without my hearing aids, I hear no sound at all.

Julie: So what’s that been like for you?

Despite all of those things, I have learned to make my deafness a learning opportunity rather than a disability. I have developed ways to compensate by challenging myself to do things in creative and different ways.  The skills I have developed as a deaf person have taught me to turn almost any negative into a positive.  In many ways, my hearing loss has made me a far stronger person.

Julie: Did you attend mainstream schools growing up?

Olivia: I spent my prep and junior school years at a private girls school I received first-rate support from an auditory verbal centre as well as the staff who taught me.  But their senior school was highly competitive and with 240 girls in each year, my parents felt it would not be suitable for me.  So I moved to a smaller Catholic Girls school, where I had the support of an itinerant teacher of the deaf.

Julie: How did you find it being the only deaf student there?

Olivia: I was very happy. I played lots of team sports which helped me make friends.   I also did lots of extra-curricular activities including four day adventure camps which helped me gain confidence, use my initiative, face hurdles and accept responsibility for things in my life.

Julie:  Did you ever experience any bullying at school?

I had a couple of experiences during my senior school years – more bitchiness rather than physical bullying.

Julie: How did you handle it?

The benefit of life experience is a wonderful thing.  I realise now that I should never have let these things upset me. I should have challenged the perpetrators and realised that bullying and bitchiness are merely signs of cowardice.  I realise now that the only way to deal with bullies is by questioning, reasoning, standing firm and confronting them without being aggressive.  Difficult to do, I know, when you’re a teenager.  But it’s worth giving it a go!

Julie: Your pronunciation is flawless.  How did you achieve that?

Olivia: The speech therapy helped.  Throughout my school life, I also had speech and drama lessons, which helped improve the tone and animation in my voice. I also made an effort to write using correct grammar so that I could learn to enjoy expressing myself through the written word.  I tried to talk to as many people as possible, to read newspapers and to watch the daily news, which fortunately by then had subtitles. I knew that the more information I could acquire, the more confidence I would gain in forming and expressing my own opinions which could only improve my school work and many other areas of my life.

Julie: What was university like for you?

Olivia: In 1999 I began studying Business at the Australian Catholic University, but suffered terribly from a lack of specialist support.  When my mother rang to express concern about the fact that I didn’t even have a notetaker, she was told rather dismissively, ‘We prefer our students to be autonomous.’

Without support, it became increasingly difficult and halfway through the year, I transferred to the University of New South Wales to study my Bachelor of Design.  Again, I was faced with the same predicament.  But this time, I wasn’t going to let them win that easily. Four years of perseverance later I went on to get my degree.  In hindsight, now that I know that universities receive special government grants to support disabled students, I should have been stronger in pressing for a notetaker. In fact, I should have threatened to take the issue to the Equal Opportunities Tribunal. If only I’d known then what I know now…

Julie: You worked for marie claire magazine.  Do you know how many girls would die to get a job like that?

Olivia: Yes, I was very fortunate!  My job was to design layouts for their Lifestyle, Travel and Fashion Insiders, set up their monthly layout board, and participate in the decision making of the magazine’s structure.  It certainly set me up really well in terms of my career.

Julie: What would your advice be to deaf children and teenagers?

Oliva: I would say to them, learn to be bold in your actions and ask for cooperation.  You may be surprised at how others respond.  Having a sense of humour definitely helps. If you can lighten up, laugh at yourself and your mistakes, and see the funny side of your deafness without belittling yourself, you will become someone others enjoy being around.

Julie: You went to live in London for a while, didn’t you?

Olivia: Yes, I have always felt it important to take myself out of my square.  So at 23, I left home to explore the world, live independently and let my spirit roam free.   But I received a nasty shock when I first moved to London and began applying for jobs. As soon as I mentioned that I was deaf, my applications resulted in no further response.  The problem was, I couldn’t use the phone to make appointments.

Julie: So what did you do?

Olivia: It didn’t take long to grasp that if I wanted a job, I was going to have to challenge people’s preconceptions as to what deafness was. So I began the process of travelling to job agencies on the London underground, presenting myself in person so that people could judge me face to face.

Julie: Did it work?

Olivia: Yes, it certainly did! My luck changed and I got a great job offer.  During my three-year stint in London, I worked as a features contributor, photographer and designer for the lifestyle and fitness magazine, Shape Up.  My role involved coming up with a story idea, putting in a proposal to the editor, then carrying out all the artwork and photo shoots in order to bring it to press.  Some of my assignments took me to New York, Norway and all over England.  It was one of the most exhilarating periods of my career.

Julie: You grew up in a hearing family and went to a hearing school.  What was that like for you?

Olivia: Growing up, I always felt that I was different. I did not belong to the Deaf community because I did not know sign language.  I was a deaf person living in the hearing world relying on spoken language and hearing aids.  I always felt in between two worlds because I was neither ‘hearing’ nor ‘signing’.

Because of this I wanted to further explore and develop my own identity.  One way of doing this, I believed, was to travel alone with international strangers who spoke English as their second language, and would therefore feel a little different themselves in foreign environments.  So after travelling through Europe and Central America with friends from London, I decided to backpack through Africa.  In Nairobi I joined a group of international backpackers and embarked on a six-week truck camping trip through Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Julie:   Was that challenging?

Olivia: It was one of the most challenging periods of my life.  At times, I found it really difficult trying to get my message across, but I was always quietly assertive in asking the others for their consideration in things.  For example, when we sat around the campfire chatting, I asked the group to pass a torch around to each person who spoke to enable me to lipread.  The trip helped develop my strength of character and to be my own person. I must confess to switching my hearing aids off the night I heard a group of hyenas howling outside the tent!

Julie: Can you tell us some of the other things you have done like this in order to assist you in work and social situations?

In work and social situations I always try, whenever necessary, to choose a seating position with less background noise and the best possible lighting. In my mind, assertiveness is being neither aggressive nor submissive.  I may not always get what I want but I always feel a sense of satisfaction in letting the other person know how I am feeling. I do not expect hearing people to accommodate my needs but I feel it is my responsibility to show them that I am capable of doing anything requested of me and to dispel any other concerns they have about my hearing loss.

Julie:  Have you ever experienced any difficulties in work situations?

At times, I have experienced being dismissed by people who, because of my hearing loss, tend to question my intelligence, abilities and skills. Despite that, I will never allow others to get me down. Instead, I have always said to myself, ‘I am running my own race.  I will not compete, nor will I compare myself with others.’ Accepting who I am has helped me move forward and be very happy and successful in my life.

Julie:  Do you think there are advantages in being deaf?

Olivia: As a deaf person, I am very aware of body language and am able to ‘read’ people which enables me to decide whether or not it is worthwhile giving energy to the person. With this skill, I have learnt how to choose friends who have empathy and who respect me as a person.  I have found that deaf people tend to make friends with genuine, special and worthwhile people. Somehow a deaf person often attracts the right people. As friendships are so important, this can go a long way towards living a happy life.

This was certainly the case with meeting Thomas, a very special man, who is now my husband. He has since told me that he was initially interested in me because of my strength of character.

Julie:  Your husband Thomas is hearing.  You mentioned that he was very considerate towards your hearing loss.  What do you mean by that?

When I am unable to communicate by email or SMS, Thomas will make a phone call on my behalf. He will also relay telephone conversations so I can communicate with the person on the other end. When he wants to get my attention, he has a form of a ‘cooee’ call that is pitched at the right level for me to hear and respond. While I’m very fortunate to have his support, I still highly value my independence.  I feel empowered when I challenge and assert myself.

What was your motivation in setting up Hear for You?

One of my greatest sources of inspiration came several years ago from an encounter I had with a mother of a deaf baby in a waiting room at a hearing centre in Sydney.  The mother had just learned that her baby’s hearing was impaired.  Just as I was walking out of a hearing test appointment, she must have noticed my hearing aids because she approached me with tears in her eyes.

She said, ‘Please help me.  My baby is deaf.  I need to know, will she lead a normal life?’  It was clear that she’d never spoken to anyone with a hearing loss before and desperately needed reassurance that things would be okay.  All I could say was:  ‘Yes.  It will be okay.  You will pull through just like my mother and I did.’  It seemed to have a profound effect because she seemed much calmer and more relieved. The incident always remained deeply ingrained in me. I would have liked to have helped her more.

Julie: Can you tell us more about Hear For You?

Sure! Hear For You is a not for profit mentoring organisation for deaf teenagers.  My research revealed that when a child is diagnosed as deaf, the primary concerns of most parents are: will my child hold their own in mainstream society? Will my child have a normal career? Will my child be happy in life and have normal relationships?  Experiences internationally show that involvement with a deaf adult mentor can alleviate these concerns and enable parents to work more effectively with their child, which has long-term benefits for the child.

A deaf mentor, who has experienced life’s ups and downs, can instil in a young deaf person the desire to believe – ‘If he or she can, so can I!’  A hearing person, even with the best of intentions, cannot provide such an example.

Julie: What sort of things do you do at Hear For You?

Olivia: We provide e-mentoring (online communication) and workshops aimed at helping young deaf people to engage fully in life and realise their potential.  Some of the workshops’ topics include identity, social and conversational skills, assertiveness, leadership, positive thinking and future prospects. The workshops deal with ways to break down the barriers of people’s preconceptions about deafness, how to handle group discussions and to learn confidence in expressing opinions.  Feelings of not belonging in the community and lack of self-worth are discussed, along with tactics to overcome these. We also do role-playing scenarios to help deal with difficult situations.  The workshops encourage better vocational aspirations and have a positive effect on the adolescents’ motivation and confidence and thus help equip them with the skills to lead happy and fulfilled social and working lives.

Julie:  What has been the feedback so far?  Have you had much positive feedback from teenagers?

In fact, one of the teenagers even went back to school and approached his sports master about becoming a team captain! It confirmed our view that there is a real need for something like this for young deaf people.

Also, two past “graduates” of our program, Adrian and Daniel (both in their final year of school), say they felt inspired after attending our “Leadership Enrichment” workshop to put themselves forward as 2010 prefects at their mainstream schools.  We are proud to say they were both successful! Adrian has shared his story in the hope of encouraging other young deaf people to have a goal – his new motto now is – “nothing is impossible!”

Julie: Olivia, thank you so much for being so generous with your time today.  How do deaf and hard of hearing teenagers and their families get more information on Hear For You?

Olivia:  Our website is www.hearforyou.com.au

If you would like to read more about Olivia’s story, click here to buy a copy of the book Breaking the Sound Barriers on Amazon.com or for the ebook version, click here

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