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Student with Down Syndrome told she would never talk gives first public speaking address to hundreds

Olivia and family

Embracing life: Olivia Hargroder (centre) with parents Kerry and Mark Hargroder after her first speaking engagement at a conference in Brisbane last week. Photo: DSAQ.

OLIVIA Hargroder is a self-confessed “chatterbox”, but she was never expected to learn to speak.

Born with Down Syndrome, the 16-year-old underwent major heart surgery and was not expected to live.

“My mum and dad couldn’t even cuddle me,” Olivia said. 

“So they stayed by my side reading books.”

The books helped and Olivia made a full recovery.

Parents Kerry and Mark Hargroder, who are parishioners at Holy Cross, Kippa Ring, learnt sign language to communicate with Olivia.

By the time she was one, she knew “about 100 signs and even some words”.

“When I was born, because I had Down Syndrome, I would never learn to speak, but I turned out to be a chatterbox.”

Almost 16 years after the doctor’s original prognosis, Olivia took centre stage at at her first speaking engagement at a national education conference last week “to teach the teachers” about how to treat children with Down Syndrome.

The ‘Expect the Best’ conference, organised by non-profit organisation Down Syndrome Association Queensland, provided teachers with resources and tools for educating children with DS.

Olivia told teachers “to have high expectations” of students with Down Syndrome.

Mum Kerry Hargroder said only one kindergarten teacher was unwilling to give Olivia a go, believing Down Syndrome children were “always a problem”.

“Yes I was a problem, but the problem was I was the one who could already read,” Olivia said.

Olivia Hargroder

Positive spark: Olivia Hargroder, who was born with Down Syndrome and not expected to ever talk, was a guest speaker at an education conference in Brisbane last week. This photo was take the day after her big speech. Photo: Emilie Ng.

Positivity comes naturally to Olivia, who believes children “are born optimistic”, but also enthusiasm for life.

She qualified for the 2012 Special Olympics’ swimming squad, took up work experience at the Dolphins League Club last year, and completed an acting course with NIDA in Brisbane over the Christmas holidays.

Her high-achieving attitude has inspired many at her high school, Southern Cross Catholic College, in particular business teacher Kevin O’Dwyer, who travelled from Scarborough to hear Olivia’s speech.

“It was motivating for me as teacher because Olivia shows us that even kids with Down Syndrome can achieve anything they put their minds to,” Mr O’Dwyer said.

“She is very bright in business and her reading and writing levels are exceptional.”

Mrs Hargroder also felt proud watching her daughter’s first speaking gig.

“She was there on a mission to teach teachers,” she said.

The mother of three said she and husband Mark Hargroder prayed baby Olivia would survive.

“Every day with Olivia is a bonus because she was never expected to survive,” Mrs Hargroder said.  

“She’s battled from the start but she’s always won through.”

Olivia hopes 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.

She is also pursuing an acting career, following the footsteps of her sister.

Her lifelong dream would be an acting job alongside her idol, UK actress Dani Harmer.

“Dani Harmer, if you’re (reading) this, make sure you say hi to your agent for me,” she said.

By Emilie Ng

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