Marlena Katene recently interviewed the music group MKTO without speaking a single word — at least verbally.
The recent college graduate from Gold Coast, Australia was born with high-tone cerebral palsy, rendering her “non-verbal, living in a verbal world.”
The speech and movement disorder has not stopped Katene from establishing a career as an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and music reporter. In respect to the latter, she confidently describes herself as “Australia’s most unique journalist. … I am non-verbal, but will get the big names.”
Katene, 23, graduated in May from Griffith University in Queensland, a state on Australia’s eastern coast. During her time as a journalism student at the school, the big entertainment, business and sports names she interviewed and featured on her YouTube channel included golfer Adam Scott, magician David Copperfield, rapper Xzibit and comedian Russell Brand.
“I can’t escape the fact that I have cerebral palsy,” confirms Katene. “It is pretty hard to hide the fact I get around in a wheelchair. … I can’t hide the fact that I use a talking device and facilitated communication to communicate. My obvious abilities are often overshadowed by my obvious disability, but only to those who do not know me. While I am still young, I would prefer to be known as a journalist, a friend, a writer, an entrepreneur or many other titles rather than being disabled.”
In the exclusive Q&A below, Katene discusses her journalistic and entrepreneurial efforts. She also offers students some basic reporting advice, built atop her “unique journalist” status.
Q: What motivated you to major in journalism at Griffith?
A: I have always liked writing. Having high-tone CP, many may pre-judge me on my body movements. My writing [by comparison] can take 10 minutes or 10 hours to construct and I am judged on the final outcome — not how I got there. … We live in a pretty good age for technology and I have had an amazing team of people over the years that have thought outside the box to ensure my communication needs are met. To me, journalism is simply conveying messages and stories to people that wish to hear them. One of my first classes we were talking about how verbal communication only accounts for a very small part of our entire communication. Therefore, even though I’m non-verbal, I can still pursue this as a career. … Disability or not, journalism is becoming more web-based and I am going to have to be very creative in how I make a career from this.
Q: What were the toughest challenges you faced over the past few years as a journalism student?
A: As a student, my initial challenge was having staff believe the work is my own. They see my body constantly moving, they see me in the wheelchair, etc. Automatically the mind goes into preconceived judgment on my intellectual ability. … Unfortunately that is human nature. I do it, you do it and others do it. So the challenge was to teach people [about] my unique communication technique … [and] get out large pieces of work in similar time to my peers. I could bore you on exactly how this was accomplished, but the course requirements were met and my GPA was well above average.
Once the belief and systems were in place to please lecturers, I actually enjoyed [the university] and found it relatively comfortable compared to my high school years. … My portfolio of interviews has been fun. I’ve had the odd critic suggest I’m a celebrity stalker or a groupie just wanting a free ride. I have had the whole [criticism], “If you didn’t have a disability you wouldn’t get half the interviews.” I think, “Maybe, but maybe not.” I am unique. I have a point of difference and I don’t hide it. How can I?
Q: From my background reading about your work, it is clear you are a burgeoning entrepreneur along with being a journalist. Tell me about this part of your professional life.
A: I believe in this day and age, no matter what you do or your abilities, you have to be creative in how you make a living. I love the fact that there are so many opportunities to make an honest living and at the same time you can enjoy what it is you are doing. In my high school years, I had a few people in the education system who did not see how I could gain meaningful employment. Rather than me having the disability, it was a few people in the system who had the disability. They simply could not see the things I could do, but rather [focused on] the fact I was non-verbal and had cerebral palsy athetosis. …
During this time, my mates were getting jobs and I wanted one as well. I had an account with some savings from my younger years. So I simply bought a business. … It is a kids jumping castle business and operates at markets. I used this as a tool to complete my high school education. As part of my final years, there was an option to do a business certificate. Upon completion of high school, I continued this at higher level and did a diploma in business management while still building the business. What started with one castle and one market now includes 16 castles, two weekly markets and many event and party hires. I split the business and purchased a franchise as well, becoming the youngest franchisee in Australia for specialty castles. …
For me, it’s a balance [between education and entrepreneurship]. My degree has taught me many things and given me credibility, however my networks and business have cemented that no matter what I do in the future I will be successful. My business was simply born out of a desire to earn and contribute. It has given me so much more as far as networks and opportunities for future ventures.
Q: You have an interest in soon putting together a book on non-celebrity heroes. It is clear many people consider YOU a true hero and inspiration. What is your response to being labeled or looked at that way?
A: The word inspiration is weird. To be honest, I don’t like it a great deal because it is used too often to describe ordinary feats. Literally today someone said to me, “Do you walk home yourself? Wow, what an inspiration.” The fact is I have a wheelchair that allows me to be very mobile and driving a mile in it truly is no big deal. So while it was a good intention, [the compliment] actually offended me. … I am 23 years old and while I want to inspire people I don’t want it to be simply because I got out of bed this morning.
This to me suggests that society can place limited expectations on people, and when they achieve the ordinary, people rise to their feet and cheer loudly. … I am inspired by people who go the extra mile, but mainly by people who do something to leave a better planet than what we were left with. People who use their position — whatever it may be — to contribute and make other people successful. Even though I am young in my journey and have many goals, I’m refining my values and one day aim to inspire not because of my disability but because of my contribution in making the world a much better place for those around me. … [E]ven now when I pitch a letter for an interview, I barely mention my disability.
Q: Based on what you learned at Griffith and have accomplished in your career so far, what is your advice for students interested in pursuing journalism in school or as a full-time profession?
A: Try to always keep things positive. The world has way too much negativity. My interviews use a very simple formula: 1) Make the person laugh. 2) Find out quirky or unusual bits of information. 3) Find out something about the subject outside the “typical” industry they’re in. [For example] I found out a certain rapper loved comic books. 4) Make your subject comfortable, then address any negative topics, but always minimize this. 5) Finish with something unique e.g. a song, joke, etc.
This formula will be challenged in the future as I have to interview people I don’t like. In the next few weeks, I am interviewing a man who has ripped off hundreds of millions of people. How will I maintain my integrity yet remain positive? How will I ask the questions people want to hear yet make him laugh? To be honest, I really do not know and this will be a challenge. …
Journalism is awesome. There is always a need for people to hear stories, and words have such power. If we are ethical in how we report, our journalism can literally change the course of history. We can be the voice of the future.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Posted by BA Haller at 7:49 PM