Joe Symons was born with moderate to severe hearing loss, but raised with an acute sense of self-advocacy. So he often forgets his deafness.
“I’ve got the label, but I’ve never thought of myself as having a disability and I have achieved all I have by just being me,” the Deafness Resource Centre executive officer says.
“Acknowledging that’s thanks to my journey, and that not everyone with hearing loss has a journey like mine. It has given me the ability to advocate for myself.”
That journey started at the hospital where Joe, born prematurely at 28 weeks, was diagnosed with hearing loss that would never improve.
His first memories are of weekly early intervention sessions, at about two years of age, at the Shepherd Centre in the Illawarra region where he grew up.
“I remember those sessions were on Fridays, because that’s when my daycare would have their incursions,” he says. “Firemen and police officers would visit and I’d always miss out.”
That disappointment aside, Joe enjoyed an inclusive environment throughout his early, primary and high school education.
Otford Public School, with about 60 students when he attended, included an itinerant support teacher adept at helping children with hearing loss, and a librarian – Joe’s mum.
Here, and later at a high school in Jindabyne, his teachers used a Frequency Modulation (FM) system, which involved wearing a microphone that would feed directly into a speaker in Joe’s ear.
“It was quite clunky. Technology has improved greatly since then. But I have realised how fortunate I was to have that technology available to me and that in my schooling, the teachers were happy to use it,” he says.
“I wasn’t able to get a support teacher again in high school, but I had already learned at that point to advocate for myself. I’d always sit at the front of the class, and my teachers used microphone systems.”
Attending schools with small classes helped, and Joe made friends easily. He participated in activities and discovered a love and knack for gymnastics.
After graduation, he took on what appeared to be a series of random professional pursuits. He became a gymnastics coach, which he loved and, for a brief period, was a stainless steel metal fabrication apprentice. He loved this less.
Then, a pursuit of an advanced diploma in graphic design led him to Canberra and, struggling to break into the competitive industry, in 2011 he launched his own clothing business featuring his designs – Arrowman.
With a knack for teaching honed as a gymnastics coach, Joe received his Certificate III in early childhood education in 2015 and started working at daycare centres while selling Arrowman designs at markets on weekends.
During this time he met Glenn Vermeulen who headed up the Deafness Resource Centre (DRC), a community organisation providing linkages and capacity building for people with hearing impairments. Joe had glimpsed the path to his calling.
“I was unaware of the assistive tech that was available to me as a person with a hearing impairment, so Glenn came in as a representative of the DRC and we sat on these tiny daycare chairs and he took me through it,” he says.
Joe was surprised to discover how little he knew about the latest and greatest technology available to him.
In 2019, he landed a gig designing t-shirts for Canberra’s not-for-profit organisation Better Hearing Australia (BHA). He stayed for a year and got to know the ins and outs of best practices in hearing loss management through advocacy, support and education, as well as the players in the field.
So, in 2020 when DRC secured an ILC grant enabling the organisation to hold hearing loss support groups, Glenn knew precisely who to approach to help.
“He believed my lived experience as well as professional experience in teaching would make me an asset to the project,” Joe says.
He wasn’t wrong. Joe went on to set up multiple support groups throughout Canberra and surrounding regions, host dozens of information sessions and was integral to the rollout of training packages for local businesses.
Putting his strong sense of self-advocacy to good use, Joe discovered a higher purpose in bringing to light all the options that could improve the quality of life for those with a hearing loss and eventually became DRC’s executive officer.
“I was lucky to have a supportive family and so much help along the way; not everyone gets that, particularly older generations,” he says.
“I hope we can get the word out to those people – there is an organisation that can guide you. It’s free, it’s informed and it’s here for one reason – to help.”
For more information visit the ACT Deafness Resource Centre.