Kate Toholka was just 10 months old when she contracted a life-threatening illness after someone sneezed on her while her family shopped at a market.
She fell ill within days and a two-week hospital stay followed, where she almost lost her young life to bacterial meningitis.
But the full effects of her health battle would not become apparent until her primary school years when a test revealed she had lost 80 per cent of her hearing.
“My parents always suspected I had hearing loss but I refused to go get tested until my Prep teacher encouraged me to,” Kate, now 32, recalls.
“I got my first pair of hearing aids just before I started Grade 1.”
A whole new world of sound suddenly opened up.
“As technology improved and I’d get new hearing aids, I would always discover new sounds and be so confused as to what they would be,” she says.
“I remember one time in Grade 4 I got new hearing aids and heard a leaf rustling on the footpath for the first time.”
Over time Kate developed strategies to cope with her hearing loss and she is happy to share her story to raise awareness of a condition she finds is rarely covered in the media.
She says by far the most important skill she has developed is lip reading.
“I cannot hear without it, which makes phones very difficult but it is what it is,” she says.
“Generally, it’s others that have to adapt for me: speaking clearly and concisely, not yelling but loud enough to hear, looking at me when they speak with nothing obstructing their face (yes, masks are a challenge) and texting instead of calling me on the phone.
“But things I do include always positioning myself so I can see people, asking for help when I need it and taking regular time-outs so I can re-energise as it can be quite exhausting listening over time.”
Kate says the daily challenges of living with a disability played a big part in shaping her into the person she is today – someone who is perceptive, determined, strategic and a great listener.
It has also instilled her with a desire to advocate for others and was behind her decision to apply for a position on the Surf Coast Shire’s All Abilities Advisory Committee (AAAC).
Kate, who works as a business strategist for the NDIA, was among the four Surf Coast residents who were this week named as the successful candidates for the AAAC from 25 applicants.
The Torquay mum is enthusiastic about the prospect of making a difference.
“I really want to make sure that council proactively listens to people with a disability and doesn’t simply make changes that are ‘performative’,” she says.
“I want real inclusion and real change, so people with a disability can enjoy our amazing shire just like everyone else does.
“I have lived experience with hearing loss, and professional experience having worked as an occupational therapist for many years in the mental health sector.
“But I haven’t had much experience on a community/council level so I thought this would be a great opportunity to experience the sector from a whole new vantage point.”
Kate, a talented netballer, admits her early years at school were not easy and she was the target of bullying which affected her confidence.
“There was just one particular bully that gave me grief and I used to be called ‘bossy’ all the time because I was so straight to the point about everything,” she remembers.
“They used to call my hearing aids ‘the things in my ears’ but it was just kids not understanding what they were.”
Kate says the bullying stopped when she was in Grade 6 but it left a mark.
“I definitely hardened up and I would say my emotional development was delayed as a result,” she says.
“My confidence wasn’t great – and still isn’t – but I’m very, very grateful for the friends I made in high school. We are still very close to this day.”
Kate says while her high school experience was positive, university was not.
“The learning style with large lecture rooms did not suit me and having to always introduce myself and my hearing impairment was really hard,” she says.
“The constant reminder of it made me quite anxious and I had a very difficult time.”
Meeting her husband Tim – who she describes as her “best friend, partner and P.A all in one” – was a turning point, together with a move from Melbourne to the Surf Coast in 2012.
“Tim was here most weekends surfing and we didn’t enjoy the city life – we originally grew up in the Macedon Ranges – so we quit our jobs and made the move,” Kate says of their lifechanging sea-change decision.
Since moving to Torquay Kate has run her own business, had a popular blog and even wrote a book titled Healthy Habits which was an Amazon.com bestseller.
She also had two gorgeous kids – Pippa, 3, and 18-month-old Huey.
“I got a job within a month of moving here but Tim struggled and ended up starting his own building design business, which is very successful to this day,” she says.
“In the end the best decision we ever made was to move here.
“We’re never leaving!”