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Year 12 Catholic schoolgirl with Down Syndrome to speak at the United Nations

Year 12 student with Down Syndrome Olivia Hargroder

Big dreamer: Olivia Hargroder, who was told by doctors she would never speak, will address delegates at the World Down Syndrome Day conference at the United Nations on March 21. Photo: Emilie Ng

GIVING up has never been Olivia Hargroder’s style.

When the 18-year-old was born, doctors told her parents Kerry and Mark Hargroder that their daughter would never learn to talk because she was born with Down Syndrome.

The Southern Cross Catholic College Year 12 student defied the odds when she addressed a national education conference early last year to “teach the teachers” about the capabilities of people with Down Syndrome.

Her achievements caught the attention of the director of Down Syndrome International Andrew Boys, who emailed the Hargroder family three weeks ago inviting Olivia to speak at the World Down Syndrome Day conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

She will be one of seven self-advocates speaking but is the only Australian to address the conference and the only student giving a speech.

While working in childcare through her Catholic school in Scarborough, Olivia learnt that “all children are born optimistic”.

“Which is great,” Olivia said.

“But are all people – doctors, nurses, physios, teachers, grandparents, are they optimistic about all children?

“Children with Down Syndrome aren’t given the same hope as other kids.

“They said I would never learn to speak.”

The Holy Cross, Kippa-Ring parishioner and altar server said she had even been labelled a “work-avoider” and “a bit difficult” at school.

But her motto has always gotten her through: “Dream, believe, achieve”.

As part of her 16-minute speech at the World Down Syndrome Day conference on Tuesday (March 21), Olivia, a budding swimmer, will present a case for including a new category of disability in the Paralympics.

“In the Paralympics, they have two boxes, intellectual impairment and physical impairment, and because those people are bigger and stronger than us, I think there should be another box called Down Syndrome,” she said.

“It’s not fair. They’re all bigger and stronger.”

She has also signed an online petition at Change.org to add a special category for athletes with Down Syndrome who want to compete at the Paralympics.

Olivia’s mum agrees with her daughter, and she said other people with Down Syndrome missed out on participating in swimming and other competitive sports because their disability did not “fit any of the boxes”.

“The Paralympic selections is used for school sports (but) Olivia wasn’t eligible to compete in interschool sport because she didn’t fit into any of the boxes,” Mrs Hargroder said.

“All the people there are taller, longer, stronger.”

She and her husband “could hardly believe” that Olivia had been chosen to speak at the UN.

“I think it’s lovely that Olivia is doing something for other people,” Mrs Hargroder said.

“That’s what we always wanted for her. We wanted her to be independent and to contribute to society; that was our wish when she was born.

“And she’s really doing it.”

As well as sharing her own story, Olivia will tell the conference stories of Australian athletes with Down Syndrome like Phoebe Mitchell and Colin Marks, as well as others who have inspired her, including Young Australian of the Year nominee Nathan Basha.

“I remember when I went to somewhere, and he helped me and a group of my friends to decide on a career, and we decided which careers we want in the future,” Olivia said.

For Olivia, that means following in the footsteps of her sister, Australian actress Lucy Fox.

She also has dreams to appear on Broadway, compete in the Paralympics and become a public speaker.

For now, Olivia will continue her schooling and her weekly work at Coles, Scarborough.

“They just see me as a regular person, working, and they just think it’s amazing that people with DS can actually do those things,” she said.

“The only problem I have is reaching up on the high shelf.”

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