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Coast special needs kids raise their voices

summer 13.14

HAVING A VOICE , and making it heard, is one of the most powerful assets a person can possess.
For some people – those without the apparent ability to speak – this power may seem like an elusive dream.
Assisting children with special needs to find their voice – quite literally – is a dream which one Sunshine Coast woman is helping to make come true. 
Lisa Mills – teacher, theatre director, actor and yoga instructor – is achieving astonishing results from the courses she offers, many of which aim to help children speak.
Lisa teaches a range of courses to adults and children including Auslan (Australian Sign Language), creative arts and yoga through her business, Honeybee Creations at Maroochydore.
Her Auslan for Early Childhood Training for teachers and student teachers is booming, and her drama classes are overflowing.
She has recently released an educational music DVD aimed at being used in mainstream classrooms that include children with special needs. 
Lisa also happens to be deaf.
Her qualifications and experience are impressive and her own voice is eloquent. But it’s her smile, and the energy behind it, which wields the greatest power.
Lisa’s deafness has undoubtedly given her a deep and abiding insight into a world where communication extends way beyond the spoken word.
Unsurprisingly, she is passionate about increasing awareness of deaf issues in the community. 
What is a little surprising, given that teaching Auslan constitutes the largest part of Lisa’s work, is that the majority of Lisa’s clients are not hearing impaired.
“I actually work with very few deaf people,” she says. 
“Everybody thinks [my business] is all about the deaf community, but it’s actually a very little part of my work. I teach a lot of mainstream kids, and kids who are non-verbal – they may be able to speak only a few words or sounds. They come to me to learn how to speak. Often they are kids with autism, or speech and language delays, or Down Syndrome.”
Lisa explains that learning sign language uses the right side of the brain, whilst speech uses the left. When people learn to sign, it has a “jump-start” effect. 
“Sign language is a means to speak,” she says.
“It facilitates speech and language, it doesn’t delay it.”
Lisa relays a story about a prep-aged child she started working with using sign language who had never previously spoken.
“He started doing a couple of signs,” she says. “My colleague was amazed. Before we knew it, he was uttering his first words.”
Whilst Lisa is now bilingual (she speaks English and signs), it was not always so.
Born with a severe hearing impairment, she grew up using hearing aids, and went to mainstream schools in Gympie and later Maroochydore.
She learnt to speak English with the help of special education support inside and outside of school, and an inspiring speech and drama teacher. 
Despite Lisa’s overwhelmingly positive attitude, her voice quietens a little when she recalls some of those childhood memories.
“Deafness can be an isolating experience because you don’t hear all that incidental language, only language that is directed at you. So  yeah, it was tough. Ultimately, it made me a stronger person I think,” she says.
“Drama was very good for me.
If I didn’t do drama, I might have gone completely into my shell. It made me come out.”
With her love of drama ignited, she went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama and English at university, and set her sights on the theatre.
It was now that she studied and gained a formal qualification in Auslan. “I had discovered the Australian Theatre of the Deaf company in Sydney, and in order to work with that company, or to do work experience with them, I knew I needed to learn sign language.” 
Lisa went on to work as an actor with that very company, launching a successful career in the creative arts.
Moving to London, she became an international theatre director and workshop leader for deaf and hearing youth, and worked for Arts Council England as a Deaf Arts Consultant, which involved increasing awareness of deaf issues and promoting the work of deaf artists. 
Returning to the coast, Lisa completed a postgraduate teaching diploma in 2009 at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and taught in Fiji, London and Australia’s Cape York, primarily working with special needs children and early intervention education. 
During her time in the UK she met and fell in love with Steve Wellman, whom she travelled the world with and eventually came back with to the Sunshine Coast, establishing Honeybee Creations three years ago.
Lisa and Steve “finally got hitched” in Coolum last year after 14 years together, and are now the proud parents of baby Romeo. 
Steve, a painter and decorator, is profoundly deaf after contracting meningitis when he was three, and uses sign language exclusively. Romeo, who Lisa describes as having “super good hearing”, is destined to be bilingual.
In what could perhaps be seen as the ultimate show of family support, Lisa’s parents and sisters took Auslan classes earlier this year. 
“My sisters and parents wanted to learn to sign before Romeo arrived, as they realise Romeo’s first language will be sign language, despite being hearing,” she says. “Romeo also inspired my family to learn sign so they can communicate better with my husband.”
Lisa credits her family – none of whom is hearing impaired – with providing her with an endless supply of love, support and encouragement, and for showing her that anything is possible. 
“They never let me give up,” she says. “I was always taught to be independent and to achieve.”
words linda read photos anastasia kariofyllidis

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