DOER. WRITER. STRATEGIST.
Growing up in a small country town has its perks.
The fresh air.
The unlimited space.
The wide open plain of imagination to run wild.
It’s also a place of judgement and restriction.
My home town is a quaint, beautiful mountain town located 45 minutes north of Melbourne. The rich and artfully affluent lived up the mountain while young families tended to dwell along the bottom. There’s no denying its physical beauty. Picture tall gum trees, huge paddocks with horses and cows, streets lined with aging oaks with their leaves turning a beautiful red every autumn.
But let me back track a little…
When I was 10 months old, I became incredibly sick with bacterial meningitis. I was lucky to come away alive but I wasn’t fully unscathed. In fact, I lost 80% of my hearing.
It wasn’t until I was in primary school that I let my teacher convince me that I needed to get my hearing checked. Lo and behold, I started my second year of schooling with ‘things’ in my ears: hearing aids.
WHEN THINGS GET COMPLICATED
Country kids aren’t used to anything outside of their ‘normal’. Where I’m from, no one was Black, Asian, or Indian. No one had a disability. No one was anything but white and healthy. The things in my ear were ‘foreign’ which lead me to be ridiculed.
I had one bully in particularly who was incredibly cruel. She didn’t call me any names in particular, just made my life a challenge by spreading rumours and ensuring no one wanted to be friends with me. The worst thing she did was actually related to my one release: netball.
"I am talented and good enough without needing to downplay others."
I was really good at netball – in fact, I could have made it professionally if it weren’t my lack of competitiveness. To this day, my closest girlfriends are all my original netball friends. Netball was a release for me – a focus and a reminder that there are things I am good at. It was – and has always been – my meditation. There’s nothing that wipes my mind clean than getting on a netball court.
But back to the original point: my bully. In junior netball, you play for your local team in a local competition. If you’re good, you get chosen to join the Representative side for that local competition and compete against others in the state. I made it every year – except one, the year my bully told me the wrong date for the trials. I couldn’t believe it! She made it that year too – the first and only time – which further cemented to me that not only am I worth it, I am talented and good enough without needing to downplay others.
To my credit, I didn’t shed many tears or lose much sleep over these lonely years. If anything, I became quite emotionally distant. Delayed somewhat. I internally built a rock solid emotional wall within me that I was almost robotic in my behaviour. It actually became an ongoing joke in my high school and later, university years, that I didn’t have feelings. I did – I just had a lot of difficulty tapping into them.
Fast forward to my university years (turns out high school would be the best time of my life), I experienced a resurgence of my ugly duckling years.
At high school, I was comfortable. Everybody knew me, knew my hearing difficulties and didn’t treat me any differently. They came to know me as a fun girl, loyal friend who wanted nothing more than to have a good time and great conversation. University was vastly different and posed a heap of new challenges.
Firstly, the classroom setting was different. I was now sitting in large, loud seminar rooms and couldn’t see the speaker’s lips (I lip read). I had to make new friends and introduce myself by letting them know my disability. I HATED this.
This lead to a really rough 4 years. I lost my confidence and spent way too many days dealing with it via horrible hangovers from alcohol binging. Every weekend was spent in a nightclub, drinking my way through a new confidence barrier. I slept with numerous men. I treated my friends poorly, and treated myself worse.
It wasn’t until I met my life partner, Tim, and moved to a seaside town that I finally started a journey of gaining confidence and turning into a swan. This simple ‘sea change’ ended up being one of the best decisions in my life. Here, I was forced to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people. I joined a local netball club, highly competitive, which required much more of me physically. I embraced the change. I took to running and pilates outside my normal training hours. I even went gluten-free! I looked better, felt better than ever before. I entered the world of wellness that saw me radically improve my confidence, my mental health (and yes, my waist line!).
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
This simple, yet profound, decision changed my life in ways I didn’t imagine. This lead to a journey in entrepreneurship which saw me finally pursue a job I loved in digital marketing and brand strategy. This whole process saw me accept my flaws as strengths and my strengths as game changers. I learned that being ‘hearing impaired’ was a challenge, not a flaw. That even though I have a lot of difficulty speaking to people on phones, there are always alternatives (thank you Skype) and people really don’t mind.
I’m not perfect, nor am I 100% comfortable with who I am. I still hate wearing my hair up or having my hearing aids visible. But I am an incredibly long way ahead from where I was 2, 3 years ago.
I still think being hearing impaired isn’t a big deal. It’s not cancer. It’s not blindness. It’s not paraplegia. I’m not even considered deaf. But it is a debilitating challenge that I face every single day. It’s not ‘trendy’ – you very rarely see stories about it in the media. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw that the female star on the movie Creed was wearing hearing aids. And this means not many people understand it. They don’t understand that it’s exhausting to listen and keep focused in large groups. Or that the best way to speak to me is NOT yelling, but simply speaking directly to my face and speaking clearly. I do get treated differently once people know and that takes some time getting used to.
"Because my hearing loss is just one part of me – it doesn’t
I have to live with this for the rest of my life. It won’t stay the same, but get worse over time. All it needs is something like a virus or a loud nightclub to worsen it. I don’t know many people under the age of 60 who have hearing loss, which at times can be isolating. But you know what? I don’t mind. Because my hearing loss is just one part of me – it doesn’t define me. It is not a part that separates me from other people. It actually makes for a great conversation (smile). Being hearing impaired makes me more perceptive, more determined, more relentless — it makes me good at what I am: the Great Strategist.
KATE TOHOLKA X UDD
Ironic I know, but it really is my best trait. I go out of my way to be an active listener and not just hear what people say, but listen to them.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Never go alone. A great life is filled with great relationships and great goals are achieved with others.
“I do not need you to speak for me.” — Shari Eberts
I met Kate recently at a conference in NYC. We chatted about our first #99uconf experience and mutual love for The City. As we spoke of our passions and I zealously spoke of Ugly Duckling Diaries, she listened intently and was exceptionally engaging. It wasn’t until I read her story that I realized that she was reading my lips.
During our conversations, I sat there repeatedly flunking the first rule of “How to interact with someone with hearing loss” (hint: face the person when speaking). Yet Kate never hinted at her hearing disability. I suspect that’s because she doesn’t want to be labeled or defined based on a loss. She wants to be known for her wins, her abilities—like the netball champ, and kickass strategist that takes brands from obscurity to prominence. And truth be told, don’t we all??
I believe early on, Katie’s other senses heightened in response to her hearing impairment, giving her the uncanny ability to effectively listen and properly analyze situations. She learned to see everything, whether it be entrepreneurship or herself, as mere challenges, not flaws. Her disability is her superpower—helping her to navigate challenges into wins—in netball, business and life.
Here is a really good article shared by Kate. Quite eye-opening! She says #1 is the big one that not many people get. And #4 makes her want to slap a few people—mostly her Tim ; )