Winning Women: Determined to be heard

She’s the audit manager for Anglo American and SA’s first deaf chartered accountant. Her amazing ability to communicate inspires her clients, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

When chartered accountant (CA) Kashveera Chanderjith arrives in a boardroom or at a client meeting, before proceedings begin, she says: “Look at me please when you speak. I am deaf.”

She lip-reads because she has no hearing whatsoever.

There are four levels of hearing loss ranging from mild to profoundly deaf. Chanderjith has never heard the spoken word. She has never heard a bird sing, waves crash or music play. She has never heard her own voice.

But others do.

Chanderjith, now in her late 20s, has not only learnt to speak up for herself, but for others who are disabled. “I have client-facing roles which require extensive interpersonal skills,” she says in a voice that has tonal variations, unlike some deaf people who speak in monotone.

The CA who began making plans to qualify as an accountant from the age of 15, has spread awareness of what it is to be deaf through corporate channels and client interactions. In so doing, she’s helped change misperceptions about the deaf, “the primary one being that we are dumb. We are not – unless we choose to be”, she says. There are many facilities for the blind but not so for the deaf, according to her. “Our disability is invisible,” she says.

Chanderjith is an ambassador for the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities in SA and ambassador and special adviser to Disability Innovation Africa.

She’s won many awards, ranging from business excellence to representing transformation, and from woman of the year to woman of excellence.

She speaks on panel discussions and gatherings, and appears on TV and radio programmes.

Her inability to speak confounded the doctors to whom her financially struggling parents took her when she was two years old. Her frustrated father eventually did his own tests. He slammed the door shut. Then he knocked on it. The little girl didn’t blink an eyelid.

Her parents were told she would never talk. Some people in her extended family shunned her and classmates mocked her.

Her parents were determined she would go to school and she ended up at Stellawood Primary, now Durban Primary School. This mainstream school had a partially hearing unit in it, and it set the foundation for most of her life’s achievements, says Chanderjith.

“The teachers were absolutely dedicated to making us self-sufficient, intelligent and speaking individuals. We learnt everything on the same level as the normal syllabus.”

The deaf children were taken camping, put in nativity plays, did drama, learnt public speaking and read endlessly.

“Our dedicated teachers, to whom I owe so much, believed that reading helped us to speak. When I discuss business strategies and operational efficiencies in a boardroom, I know I am able to do so with confidence due to the simple teachings and principles I imbued from my Grade 1 to Grade 7 teacher, Mrs Louise Diamond.”

Her determined parents took her to the Carel du Toit Centre for Hearing Impaired Children at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. There, through a method known as aural-oral, she learnt to talk and to communicate by lip-reading, talking and comprehending facial expressions. “Aural-oral is a much harder method to practise than others, requires a lot of time and is initially really frustrating,” says Chanderjith.

Because her family lived in Durban, her parents did most of the teaching, “and so everything was turned into a lesson. As my father Ronnie pushed me on a swing, he’d ask: ‘What is Kashveera doing? She is swinging?’

“And, as my mother Ousha cooked, she did the same thing. So my childhood disappeared in a blaze of learning to speak every minute of the waking day.”

Chanderjith matriculated with five distinctions at Crawford College in Durban in 2004. In 2007, she became the first deaf person to graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The transition from school to university was huge and painful because there was little help for the deaf. “I made friends with a blind guy and we helped each other. Furthermore, he saved my life one day when he heard a car racing around a bend on our street and pulled me back.”

Her time doing her articles at Deloitte were not the best days of her life. “I was thrown into a hearing corporate environment. I decided I never wanted to work again in a hearing corporation,” she says.

That all changed when Chanderjith was headhunted by Anglo American’s corporate office business assurance services, flown to Joburg for an interview, and asked to start work four days later.

“I was astonished and thrilled. I had learnt to make my disability clear, to speak up and to initiate conversations. I didn’t wait to be spoken to – it’s a 50-50 situation.”

Chanderjith supports charitable causes, particularly in education, and speaks publicly about the struggles faced by the disabled.

On a recent visit to Australia, she watched the Oscar Pistorius trial on TV, “with live teletext on all the channels. That’s what we need here”, says this champion for basic human rights for the disabled.

LITTLE PINK BOOK

Business tip: Set out to mould your life so it becomes a reflection of the best you can be.

Mentor: Family friend Saths Naicker, who is a subject adviser in business economics for the department of education. When my family despaired, he said: ‘One day, she will have a voice.’

Business books: A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford about the fortunes of a retail empire. Man Management by Dr Deepak Anand.

Inspiration: My parents. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their strength of mind and courage.

Wow! moment: When I realised I had a voice. I knew I sounded different, but I made peace with my disability in high school.

Life lesson: Learning I had become a person so resolute in my goals that I could bend titanium.

See more Winning Women on CNBC Africa (DStv channel 410) every Wednesday at 9.15pm during Women on Wealth

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