OLIVIA Hargroder will speak up for children with Down syndrome at an international conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York on World Down Syndrome Day.
The Year 12 Southern Cross Catholic College, Scarborough, student will be one of seven self-advocates speaking during the conference, which advances the human rights of people with Down syndrome and disabilities.
The only Australian to address the conference and the only student giving a speech, Olivia was passionate about improving outcomes for other children with Down syndrome.
Despite doctors telling her parents, Kerry and Mark, she would never talk after she was born with Down syndrome, the self-confessed “chatterbox”, was keen to challenge the perception that children born with Down syndrome could never achieve anything they set their minds to.
“People try to put people with disabilities into boxes,” Olivia said.
“I want people to know that it’s not fair for people with Down syndrome to be put in a box only for intellectual impairment, there are lots of other physical challenges we face,” she said.
During her 16-minute speech, titled: “Let’s change the box!”, Olivia will share her story and stories of other Australian athletes with Down syndrome like Phoebe Mitchell, Colin Marks and Young Australian of the Year nominee Nathan Basha.
She uses examples of people she knows personally, who had not let Down syndrome stand in the way of their dreams, and who were achieving extraordinary success, both locally and internationally.
She also discusses the need to allow children with Down syndrome the dignity of failure and the opportunity to learn and grow from negative experiences.
Olivia said she learnt that “all children are born optimistic” while working in childcare, organised through Southern Cross Catholic College.
“But people aren’t very optimistic about children with disabilities, particularly with Down syndrome,” she said.
“Children with Down syndrome aren’t given the same hope as other kids.”
When she was nine weeks old, doctors performed open-heart surgery on Olivia because she had a hole in her heart
“I was really sick and Mum and Dad couldn’t even cuddle me,” Olivia said.
“The doctors thought I wouldn’t make it.”
But she did and, almost 16 years after the doctor’s original prognosis, Olivia took centre stage to “teach the teachers” about how to treat children with Down syndrome during her first public speaking engagement at a national education conference in Brisbane in 2016.
The ‘Expect the Best’ conference, organised by non-profit organisation Down Syndrome Association Queensland, provided teachers with resources and tools for educating children with Down syndrome.
Olivia told those gathered to “have high expectations” of students with Down syndrome.
Her achievements caught the attention of Down Syndrome International director Andrew Boys, who invited Olivia to speak at the UN’s World Down Syndrome Day conference.
Positivity comes naturally to Olivia.
Her high-achieving attitude has inspired many at Southern Cross Catholic College.
Olivia said she hoped one day to own her own café and employ people with disabilities, especially those with Down syndrome.
“I just love helping people with Down syndrome,” she said.