33 year old Sharon Xabregas signed the Australian national anthem at the 2017 National Rugby League (NRL) Grand Final.
Hard of hearing since birth, Sharon knows the difficulties of living with disability. With an older brother who is deaf, Sharon communicated solely in sign language growing up.
“Sign language was my first language; I didn’t start talking until I was five,” she said.
Also thought to be deaf, it was not until Sharon started school that doctors determined she had some hearing and could also speak. Sharon was then moved from deaf school into mainstream schooling, which she says benefited her greatly.
“I would go out in the playground and communicate to those who were deaf. And then run over to my friends and be able to talk.”
Now the NSW Disability Employment Services Account Manager at MAX, Sharon has worked in disability employment services since she was 21, helping other people with disability gain permanent work.
“I started looking for work when I was 17 and it took me over a year. I didn’t know if I should be disclosing my disability or not.”
After a year of rejection after rejection, Sharon began to hide her disability in order to get work.
“That didn’t go over very well with employers. A lot of bullying, a lot of name calling and there was no real support. I really wanted a job, I knew how hard it was to get one. I put up with the bullying to stay employed.”
Nearly 80,000 people filled Sydney’s ANZ stadium for the 2017 Grand Final, with over four million more tuning in at home. To stand up in front of that many people could be daunting for some, but when the NRL reached out to The Deaf Society, they had one person in mind who they knew would be perfect for this event.
Sharon has previous experience signing on medical conference panels for thousands of people, advocating the use of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) for deaf patients in hospitals.
Sharon hopes that she will inspire many others to open up about their disability, and not be embarrassed to speak out.
“I hope it makes people stop and think that there’s another community out there. Being hard of hearing feels a bit like an invisible disability at times. It’s not something you see, it’s not obvious - anyone can have a hearing loss.”
Image caption: Ricki-Lee Coulter with Sharon just before heading on stage.