In focus

Olivia Hargroder

Disability rights advocate and entertainment all-star Olivia Hargroder has already achieved so much, writes Emily Campbell.

She is a dancer, actor, athlete, social justice activist and public speaker with a contagious enthusiasm and determination to smash goals.

The 22-year-old woman from Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, has addressed the United Nations (UN) Congress, represented her state in competitive swimming and starred in several stage and screen productions.

Olivia also has Down Syndrome. She has faced a range of health problems as a result, including multiple open-heart surgeries and knee operations.

Despite these obstacles, Olivia is committed to showing others that people with a disability can live a fulfilling, high-achieving life.

Change the Box campaign

As an accomplished competitive swimmer, Olivia represented Moreton North and Queensland in the Special Olympics, winning gold in the 100-metre freestyle event at the nationals in Adelaide.

It was Olivia’s competitive swimming that inspired her Change the Box campaign, through which she is advocating for the Paralympics to include a new category for athletes with Down Syndrome.

Olivia, who has been swimming since she was little, believes diverse representation in sport is important, prompting her to create a petition calling on the President of the Australian Paralympic Committee to implement more inclusive policies.

People with Down Syndrome competing in the Paralympics and being represented is one of my dreams – I hope to compete one day.

“Currently, people with Down Syndrome are at a disadvantage in the Paralympics,” Olivia said.

“There are three separate categories – or boxes – for athletes in the Paralympics, which are physical impairment, visual impairment and intellectual impairment.

“Down Syndrome athletes currently have to compete in the intellectual impairment category, which means we are up against others who are able-bodied, bigger and stronger than us.”

Olivia explained that people with Down Syndrome also have physical impairments, so they face more barriers than athletes who have an intellectual disability alone. These include muscular and joint issues, visual impairment, cardio and thyroid problems and short limbs.

“We are at a disadvantage competing against able-bodied people in the intellectual impairment category, because people with Down Syndrome have physical disabilities too, so they never make the team,” Olivia said.

“That’s why we need to have our own fourth, separate box for intellectual and physical disability, so things are fair.

“You will hardly see a swimmer with Down Syndrome in the Paralympics, however dedicated or talented they are. But there are around 8 million of us around the world – we need our own box.

“That would be fair. That would give us something to work for and train like a champion.

“That would give people with Down Syndrome role models we can relate to.”

The petition has gained more than 6000 signatures, with many high-profile people backing the cause, including British pop stars Harry Styles and Niall Horan, US Olympic diver Greg Louganis and former Governor General of Australia Dame Quentin Bryce.

Addressing the UN

In 2017, Olivia attended the UN Congress in New York and delivered a speech for World Down Syndrome Day, during which she brought international awareness to Change the Box.

“This campaign is really close tomy heart and I’m really proud of it,” Olivia said.

“People with Down Syndrome competing in the Paralympics and being represented is one of my dreams. I really want to be part of it and hope to compete one day.”

Olivia said delivering her speech at the UN was a highlight of her journey so far. “I had a total blast, it was so much fun,” she said.

Olivia also spoke at the World Congress of Down Syndrome 2018 in Glasgow, where researchers into the new fourth box category came to hear her.

Fourth box trialled at INAS

Olivia’s campaign has gained traction, with the Down Syndrome fourth box category being trialled at the 2019 INAS Global Games — a world class sporting competition held every four years.

At these games, athletes with intellectual impairment can compete at a high level in a safe, secure, inclusive environment.

In addition to providing athletes with intellectual impairment the opportunity to get involved in elite levels of sport, the INAS Global Games aims to challenge perceptions of disability, change attitudes and build communities locally and globally.

At the 2019 INAS competition in Brisbane, more than 1000 athletes from all over the world gathered to compete. Officials introduced events for athletes with Down Syndrome and researchers gathered data.

As a result of that trial, there is now a separate category for school sports in Queensland so children with both physical and intellectual disabilities can compete on a more level playing field during interschool sports.

Olivia is pleased with this outcome and hopes that by the time the Olympics come to Brisbane in 2032, the Down Syndrome category will be in place for the Paralympics.

“I would love to see it, things change slowly but they are going in the right direction,” she said.

Outstanding young Australian

In 2017, Olivia was nominated for the Queensland Young Australian of the Year Award in recognition of her activism and service to the community.

“Being nominated was pretty exciting and has led to other opportunities and I’ve met other friends through the program,” she said.

Now an Ambassador for Queensland Day and Australia Day, Olivia represents the Queensland Government on Australia Day every year by travelling to attend celebrations and advocate for disability awareness.

Sport is a huge part of Olivia’s life. It led her to volunteer in the athlete’s village on the entertainment team during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

“I got to meet and greet the athletes, it was exciting and I got to see plenty of athletes including Usain Bolt,” she said. “I’m definitely signing up to volunteer for the Brisbane Olympics.”

Teachers who made an impact

Olivia said she had a great high school experience, thanks to the wonderful staff at Southern Cross Catholic College in Redcliffe.

“I loved going to Southern Cross, because it was like being part of one big family; it’s always been like a home to me,” she said.

Olivia’s mother, Kerry, said the creative and engaging methods of Olivia’s teachers were instrumental in helping Olivia to learn effectively and enjoy classes.

“Olivia is passionate about inclusive education and has addressed cohorts of teachers during conferences about how to make learning work better for students with Down Syndrome,” Kerry said.

Olivia said rule number one is to make it fun.

“Sometimes we would have multiplication, subtractions, additions and division – and learn that through cakes and chocolates,” Olivia said. “I had the best teachers ever.”

In science, her teacher taught the class about the structure of a cell using cake that was decorated to represent the cell membrane, nucleus and mitochondria, an approach Olivia said helped her to enjoy learning and remember content.

During school, Olivia said teachers allowed her regular breaks, helping her to maintain concentration and combat fatigue.

“I used to get really tired and wasn’t learning as much, so what they would do for me was to let me get up and do a bit of exercise, run around to get my energy levels back up again.

“Once I was energised, I’d sit back down, keep going with learning and blitz it!”

Kerry said one of the best aspects of Olivia attending a mainstream school was the exposure she had to extracurricular activities and socialising.

“Olivia put her hand up for anything, whenever there was anything happening,” Kerry said. “She got to help with events, play netball, tennis, drama, fundraising and theatre sports, which is great because it really gets her brain working and requires quick thinking.”

Flexibility crucial for inclusion

Although her dream job is in entertainment, Olivia has completed work experience in hospitality and retail, which has taught her lots of valuable skills.

Olivia’s work experience at a supermarket eventually led to ongoing employment and a part-time job. She now works three days a week.

At both school and work, Kerry said Olivia thrives when people find her strengths and offer her the flexibility to make either study or work fit those strengths.

“One of Olivia’s most successful teachers at school was her business teacher,” Kerry said.

“Business was really good because he would take the curriculum and turn it into something that not only you could do, but something you could really succeed at.”

A bright future

Beyond sport and advocacy, Olivia has immersed herself in the world of arts and entertainment. She thrives on stage, taking after her older sister Lucy, an actor and comedian.

Olivia started dancing at age four and currently averages 20 hours per week.

“I loved dancing so much that when I started, I told my mum I wanted to become a professional dancer and make a career out of it,” she said. “I’m working really hard to reach that goal.”

A graduate of NIDA’s Young Actor’s Studio, Olivia has been involved in several on-screen and live theatre productions, recently starring in a short film, Sunshine.

Kerry said Sunshine — which premiered at the 2021 Brisbane International Film Festival before moving on to the film festival circuit — is an important movie.

“It’s a beautiful story with a powerful message, but it’s told so sensitively,” Kerry said.

“So many modern films are dark and macabre with their shock factor, but I thought Sunshine was clever because you still got a surprise, but it was so gentle and sensitively done,” she said.

Olivia helped develop the movie through a program run by Bus Stop Films, an inclusive screen company that aims to raise the profile of people with disabilities and other marginalised groups who have an interest in film or aspirations to work in the industry.

“We helped write the script and I even got the chance to audition for the main part, which I got,” Olivia said.

Dream, believe, achieve

With new auditions coming up, Olivia is busy rehearsing her parts and learning scripts.

Kerry is proud of her daughter – doctors once believed she would never talk or be able to learn.

“That’s another thing school really prepared Olivia for,” Kerry said.

“Her literacy levels are really high, so being able to read is such a great advantage, and to assume someone with Down Syndrome might not be the best reader, it really does them a disservice.

“Do you think doctors and people in general tend to underestimate what people with Down Syndrome can do?” Kerry asked Olivia.

“I think they do,” Olivia said. “Some people do, some people don’t.

“If you have Down Syndrome or a disability, just know that even if some people see you as just your disability, don’t take that personally.

“The secret to success is to dream, believe, achieve and then work hard.

“If you put in the hard work, you can achieve your dreams and live an incredible life,” she said.