Monique Leith is a Consultant Resource & Environmental Planner who runs her own land development consultancy business, Leith Consulting. She also Co-Chairs the local Chamber of Commerce. She’s 33 and lives with her husband, teenage son, and has a new baby on the way.
She is passionate about empowering Deaf youth to chase their career dreams and embrace their authentic selves. Her journey towards self-acceptance is one that many with hearing loss will be able to relate to and be inspired by.
Monique was diagnosed with a high-frequency hearing loss at age two, and it is quite profound. Without hearing aids, she can’t hear any high pitches at all. She can only hear some deeper sounds, such as a door closing or a phone vibrating on a table.
Her son’s voice is now dropping, and she is very glad to have an easier time hearing him.
Monique’s mother is also Deaf, and while her father is full hearing, he was always very aware of communicating with her in a way that ensured she was included.
“I have two brothers as well, and as a family, we would always speak clearly to each other. We would get people’s attention before we started talking. Our hearing family members helped those of us who couldn’t hear so well regulate our voice volumes in different situations. There was a lot of natural awareness. I felt very supported when I was a child because my parents were so aware of what I needed,” says Monique.
Looking back, she thinks of how overwhelming it would have been for her grandparents who raised a Deaf daughter without any lived experience of Deafness.
Despite this, her grandparents raised a confident Deaf daughter who passed on her high expectations to Monique.
“My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher and was very invested in teaching good speech and giving mum the best education they could provide. She ended up thriving and became a qualified Occupational Therapist. Grandma’s expectations of mum were the same as for hearing children. Naturally, Mum’s expectations were the same for me and my brother. I never felt there was anything very different about our family, or that there was something wrong with me due to those expectations and support system.”
While her family was supportive of her hearing loss, she struggled to adapt to hearing aids throughout her schooling years.
“I got them in primary school, and I hated them. It didn’t help that I also hated the audiology testing process. I didn’t want to be different or reminded of my Deafness, so I refused to wear them,” admits Monique.
“I tried them again when I was at university and I found it hard to adjust to them. The technology wasn’t great – amplifying everything instead of just the sounds I needed, and I still wasn’t that interested in them – I felt like I coped fine without them. So, that didn’t last for very long either.”
Monique attended mainstream school, and her family was dedicated to helping her develop confident speech.
“Learning to speak is hard when you can’t hear! I say words as I read them, not as they sound which is often not correct! Soft sounds are also really hard to get right because you can’t hear them. You think you’re saying them because you’re shaping your lips correctly but the sound coming out isn’t loud enough for hearing people.
“I had a lot of speech training over the years” says Monique. “And I always felt good about my primary school. The school principal was an amazing leader.”
“I had a support teacher for a while, but I hated that because I didn’t want any attention shone on my hearing loss. However, they all had the best of intentions.”
Her tenacity, work ethic, and dedication lead her to university, where she had no support because nobody knew about her hearing loss.
“I am sure if I had told them about my hearing loss, I would have received support, but I was so ashamed. I didn’t admit to having a hearing loss on any of my university application forms,” says Monique.
“So, I didn’t get any of the help that would have been potentially available to me. I didn’t socialise with people in my dorm because I couldn’t hear what people were saying.”
“In classes, I couldn’t hear what the lecturers were saying at all, but I’d glean enough information from the PowerPoint presentations, and spent many hours reading up on what we’d covered in classes earlier that day.”
“I built up a very strong ethic. I’ve always wanted to achieve great things in life, and I knew that if I wanted to achieve these things I’d need to work hard.”
In 2019, she attended the International Initiative on Disability Leadership in Washington DC and met other Deaf people who had achieved amazing things.
This was a huge turning point for Monique, and she credits it for a personal transformation.
“It completely changed my life. I saw Deaf doctors, Deaf teachers, Deaf lawyers, Deaf university lecturers. Deaf people who were highly qualified and of so many different career paths. The level of inclusivity, of their support networks, was incredible. It opened my eyes to what an accessible world for the Deaf community really looks like,” she says.
“I hadn’t met another successful businessperson or any Environmental Planners in New Zealand who were also Deaf. Seeing others in my position who had achieved what they had, gave me a new-found passion to help Deaf youth in New Zealand pursue their career goals despite the challenges.”
“When I returned to New Zealand after that, in 2019, I was feeling a lot more confident about who I am. It gave me the confidence to shed my Deaf shame, embrace my authentic self, and gave me a real drive to try to help people like my younger self. The one who was in college and felt invisible. I realised I can be the example that I never had.”
Monique’s newfound confidence led her to wearing hearing aids just three years ago and embracing technology.
“I realised that my hearing was getting quite bad, and the technology was getting so much better. So, with the encouragement of my husband, I tried hearing aids again.”
“I’ve been wearing hearing aids for three years now,” she says.
“I didn’t realise how Deaf I actually was. I was really Deaf. [Laughs] I could not cope without them now!”
Embracing technology has also been a critical tool to helping Monique thrive in a hearing world.
“My husband has been encouraging me for years to utilise various technology, but I always thought I coped fine and wasn’t really interested. It wasn’t until Lockdown that I really started exploring the various bits and pieces out there and I was so impressed with what I discovered! Technology has definitely helped me become even more empowered and independent, particularly in my work” says Monique.
Since becoming a businessowner, she has learned to be her own advocate. This has forced her to accept where she has limitations and be honest about them.
“If I receive a call, I can email or text people a response. I’ll tell them, I can’t return your call because I don’t use the phone. So, can we meet in person, or would you be able to flick me an email?
“I have to make sure my devices are charged up; I’ve been in meetings where my hearing aid batteries have gone out!
“Now that I’m a lot more confident, I can say to people – can we please move this meeting in closer so I can lip-read you all, or do you mind turning to me while you’re talking, or this café is a bit noisy – can we go somewhere a bit quieter”.
“In more recent times, I’ve also stopped trying to please people who don’t make an effort to clearly communicate with me. I have spent far too many years hiding my Deafness and being ashamed of it. While I still want to be able to participate in anything, just like anyone else, if people or event organisers aren’t interested or willing to make meetings and gatherings accessible then I now accept it’s not worth my time attending. I am more selective in where I spend my time and energy and when people ask why I’m not going - it opens the door to having powerful conversations about accessibility”.
When Monique joined the Kāpiti Coast Chamber of Commerce as Co-Chair, she requested to move their meetings online so she could access closed captioning. This has worked well but meeting in person is important too.
“We have every third meeting in person. The third meeting is quite difficult for me, but my needs are not more important than others – we must have that in-person connection also.”
Monique has been a true source of inspiration for her colleagues. Jacinda Thorn, who Co-Chairs the Kāpiti Coast Chamber of Commerce alongside Monique, speaks highly of her tenacity.
“She has an incredible energy and valuable insights - I couldn’t do this job without her,” says Jacinda.
“Hearing loss doesn’t hold Monique back. She inspires me every single day as a busy business owner.”
Working closely with someone who has a significant hearing loss has provided a shift in perspective for Jacinda.
“I see the world differently now, and often find myself thinking, ‘how does she cope?’ when I’m in situations where hearing is critical. I am much more aware of making my own business more accessible.
“I think the world needs to much more understanding and accommodating of hearing loss and I am now on a mission to educate as many people as possible on how they can be more accessible.”
Angela Buswell, a Board Member at the Chamber and Kāpiti Coast Districtwide Councillor, reflects on her own experiences of working alongside Monique.
“I love working with Monique. She is an inspiring soul with so much love and energy to give…[she] works so hard and is so confident in herself that I often forget she has a disability,” says Angela.
“Monique has a fabulous way of reminding us we can all be a bit different, and we need to be mindful of everyone's differences. Monique is a very clever, intelligent, confident woman and puts 110% into everything that she does.”
While meeting new people and participating in groups has its challenges, Monique is determined to get out and connect with people regardless.
“I do get quite anxious when I go to talk to someone, and I can’t hear them. It’s not the first thing you want to tell anyone about yourself. Like, ‘Hi! I’m Monique, and I’m Deaf.’ Most people are inexperienced and just don’t know what to do when you tell them.”
She has learned that while people do want to help and be inclusive, many people need a bit of guidance.
“People only know what they know. If we don’t talk about our challenges, they don’t know. What I’ve found in recent years is that people are genuinely interested and want to know how to be inclusive, but most lack experience and exposure. They just don’t know how to be an ally, so you have to show them.”
In our Share Your Story series, Deaf and hard of hearing New Zealanders open up about their experiences.
Stay tuned for more interviews, which will soon be released to our blog: