Going where there is silence: Deafblind woman hopes to tell unique stories

 abc.net.au  4/21/2017 11:18:02 PM   Eliza Laschon

Updated April 22, 2017 09:34:21

"I have a lot of doubters, people who think that I will fail. A lot actually because I can only see a little bit and hear a little bit," 19-year-old journalism student Vanessa Vlajkovic says through an interpreter.

"I want to make the most of my life … nothing is impossible."

It is a sentiment Ms Vlajkovic has already proven time and time again as a member of the deafblind community.

Now, as she works through her degree, she will have to overcome people's preconceptions in order to get a job in one of the more competitive industries around.

The teenager was born with optic atrophy and her sight is limited to what is very close to her. The rest of the world is just outlines of shapes and shadows.

She was born being able to hear. Her family is multilingual so she grew up speaking Bosnian, Indonesian and English — as well as learning Braille.

But she started losing her hearing progressively from the age of seven, and wore hearing aids until the age of 16 when they stopped being effective.

Feeling torn between two worlds — the hearing and the deaf — Ms Vlajkovic made the decision to "switch off" from the hearing world, removing the hearing aids in favour of using Australian Sign Language (Auslan).

The decision means Ms Vlajkovic also relies on technology such as Facebook and text messaging, plus her BrailleNote — a handheld computer geared to Braille users — to communicate.

'Not afraid to ask' attitude

None of her daily hurdles with communication have stopped her from pursuing a career that is reliant upon that very skill — she is a second-year journalism student at Edith Cowan University.

"I've always been good at English … I enjoy writing. I read a lot," she said.

"I never think of myself as having a disability, I always think of myself as having a special ability because how many people can read Braille? How many people out there can do sign language?"

After a tough final two years of high school, which she describes as "the worst two years of my life", Ms Vlajkovic's first year of university brought with it a whole new set of challenges.

"There was a lot of advocating at the beginning and it was exhausting," she said.

"But I was never taught to be afraid … to ask for something that I needed and to tell people what I needed."

'We all have a human right' for access to education

Linni Oliver acts as her eyes and ears on campus, and Ms Vlajkovic also has two Auslan interpreters to translate her lectures and tutorials, as well as a note-taker.

"Part of my role is to also educate the students and the lecturers as to what Vanessa's specific needs are and why we are here as a team with her," Ms Oliver said.

The group navigate through the challenges of class work, assignments and examinations together.

"I choose to go to university — that's my choice and I have that right," Ms Vlajkovic said.

"We all have a human right for access. It's not a privilege, it's a right."

The university believes a media career is within reach for Ms Vlajkovic, especially in investigative, research-based journalism.

"I think she's got huge potential to be very valuable because she is bright, she can read and interpret and understand and do all of those things that many of the other students find quite difficult," ECU senior journalism lecturer Kayt Davies said.

"She has better retention of written work than most of the other students and maybe it's because — and maybe I am speculating — maybe she's less distracted."

Ms Vlajkovic has not decided exactly what path she will take but is open to the possibilities.

"I think TV would be my number one option but also writing in newspapers, magazines, maybe for radio," she said.

'I am on the same level ... I am not below you'

Successful university student is just one accomplishment in a growing list.

Ms Vlajkovic was recently named both WA Young Person of the Year and Miss Deaf Australia, and her passion in life is cheerleading.

A self-confessed thrill seeker, she is the "flyer" in her cheerleading team — the one that gets thrown up in the air.

She is determined to keep changing the attitudes towards the deafblind community.

"I have a lot of different needs, that's a fact," she said.

"I want people to be open minded when they meet me and to think first 'OK, she's different, she communicates differently, that's fine'.

"[But] I am on the same level as you in life, I am not any different. I am not below you."

Topics: disabilities, university-and-further-education, journalism, human-interest, perth-6000

First posted April 22, 2017 09:18:02

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