There is nothing we love more than stories of members of the Deaf community achieving great things. To say Ceilidh O’Sullivan is an acheiver is certainly an understatement.
Ceilidh was born profoundly deaf, and wasn’t diagnosed until she was one. She moved with her family from Ipswich to Bundaberg, where she attended preschool and then an Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP).
“I had hearing aids growing up,” Ceilidh remembers. “I liked life, and grew up with friends.”
Ceilidh expressed an interest in design at a young age, but it was in a different arena that she first excelled. She began BMX riding at ten, and by 15 she was QLD State Champion. A sporting career beckoned, but life intervened.
At around this time, Ceilidh’s stepfather, who had lived with a diagnosis of leukaemia for much of Ceilidh’s life, passed away.
“It was a time of real stress,” Ceilidh says. “It sounds strange, but my hearing deteriorated at this time, even with hearing aids.”
By the time Ceilidh admitted to herself that her hearing was severely affected, it was almost too late to do anything about it.
While Deaf or hard of hearing children received top priority on waiting lists for cochlear implants, Ceilidh was by this time 17 and as such, no longer considered a child. She faced a wait of up to three years or a cost of $30,000. By the time either point was reached, Ceilidh feared her hearing and speech could have totally disappeared.
“I gave up on the idea of it,” Ceilidh says. “I thought I just won’t do it.”
Pictured: Ceilidh (far right) at a BMX meet in 2006.
Luckily for Ceilidh, one of her teachers hadn’t given up. She contacted the local Rotary Club who organised a fundraising campaign and a story in the local paper.
“I think people already knew me through BMX,” Ceilidh says. “When they saw me in the paper, they went I know her!”
The local community rallied around Ceilidh, raising the $30,000 she needed to receive the cochlear procedure.
“I didn’t realise that many people were willing to help me,” Ceilidh says. “It was so nice that they did.”
Despite having to leave her BMX career behind her, receiving her cochlear implant improved Ceilidh’s speech and hearing, allowing her to gain employment and become more involved in the wider community.
At 19, Ceilidh began work teaching as an Auslan Language Model in Bundaberg, but soon found a calling far further afield: Uganda, Africa.
“I had a friend in Bundaberg who had been to Uganda to teach Deaf children and she told me all about it. When she told me she was going back soon, I said I’ll come with you!”
Ceilidh researched the Ugandan Deaf community and realised she could help. She came across a small, relatively new organisation called Boanerges Deaf Initiative (BDI), and, after contacting the director, agreed to join a small team creating a new school in Kawempe, a northern division of the capital Kampala.
Ceilidh spent three months at the school from its inception, helping out where she could. She travelled a little, but her focus remained.
“I wasn’t interested in safaris,” Ceilidh explains. “I learned Ugandan Sign Language. I just wanted to understand how best to improve Deaf education.”
Ceilidh faced severe culture shock in her first three months, not just from the obvious differences between Australia and Uganda, but also the prevailing attitude that the education of Deaf children was worthless, and that they were only fit for manual labour.
“In Uganda,” Ceilidh explains, “they regard Deaf people—and children in particular—as useless. When I first arrived, whenever would see a Deaf child, they would yell kasiru!, which means dumb person.”
Despite this, Ceilidh understood the realities and restrictions of imposing her culture onto another. From the very start, the school’s educational philosophy was deliberately holistic, encouraging responsibility for learning to not only the children but also their parents, and in this way teaching the wider community the benefits of empowering every part of a population.
“We gave the parents the opportunity to learn sign language,” Ceilidh says. “We educated them about Deaf culture and what resources were available to them and their children.”
Ceilidh took great satisfaction in watching the growing pride of the students’ parents.
“I saw the change in their attitude,” she says. “They became proud to tell their community that their child goes to this school, can read and write, that they’re no different to other children.”
Ceilidh used funding from a Deaf Services Life Enrichment Grant, funded directly via The Deaf Lottery, to implement sustainable farming and transport practices at the school, allowing the students to receive food and accommodation as part of their education. In this way, she helped to create new local businesses, delivering money and support to not just the school but the whole community.
“The Life Enrichment Grant meant a lot to me because not only it did help me start something sustainable for myself, it carried on to others as well,” Ceilidh says. “It boosted our farming capabilities and created sustainable income which continues to this day to help.”
After her original three-month stay, Ceilidh regularly returned to Uganda, coming back to Australia to raise money to continue the school’s growth, and to plan others. Eventually, though, she knew it was time to move on.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she says, “but also emotionally draining. I knew I had done all I could to set up the school and the community, to make sure the future was sustainable and that they had their own business that could continue to fund itself.”
She moved back to Australia permanently, and began to reignite a personal passion that had traced its way to her all the way from childhood.
Growing up, Ceilidh loved drawing houses, but perhaps not the simple scrawls many of us would imagine.
“I would draw floor plans,” Ceilidh explains. “I would design the house I wanted to live in.” She didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first indication of Ceilidh’s dream of becoming a house designer.
After returning from Africa, Ceilidh left behind her stable teaching career to begin her dream career at the ground floor—so to speak—becoming an apprentice carpenter for three years while also beginning study in house design.
“It was a really difficult time,” she remembers. “Being a woman, being Deaf, in a male-dominated area, was tough. I’d also come from a good, stable job into this new, challenging environment. I felt like a child again. I had to rebuild my confidence and learn to deal with different people.”
Ceilidh persevered and, like so much else in her life, she just got it done. She finished her apprentice and gained her carpentry licence, allowing her to focus on her own projects, such as a small business making rings from sustainable timber.
While studying, Ceilidh undertook work experience with Ecolibrium, a small company in Eumundi on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast producing sustainable house designs. Her work ethic left a lasting impression on those she worked with.
“I finished my study and my boss said You can stay if you want!” says Ceilidh. “So I stayed.”
Ceilidh has now worked for Ecolibrium for two years, and loves her work. An upcoming project she is looking forward to is using her carpentry skills to build a new office for the company.
“I would love to one day run my own business,” Ceilidh says. “It would offer drafting and building design, and be staffed entirely by Deaf people. At the moment I’m helping another Deaf lady who’s at uni studying house design. I’ll get there one day!”
Ceilidh hasn’t been back to Uganda for four years, but says it is not a place she will ever forget.
“I still have a piece of my heart there,” she says. “I still talk to the children and members of the community I know.”
From an initial handful of students, today the school supports 60 children, including infant learners, and continues to supply food, transport and lodging to every child who passes through its doors.
“Some kids had no language when I met them. These are kids of 12 or 13. And now I see them grown up, I follow their news on Facebook. A number of them have attended a trade school, communicate well, are able to support themselves. I know some of them have gone back to the school to be teachers, which is amazing. I think if our school hadn’t been there, where would these kids be now? I’m so glad they get to make their own choices with their life.”