Born with a hearing problem, the 22-year-old gave a motivational talk in Menlo Park to a group of parents of hearing-impaired children on Saturday about the importance of loving and caring for their children regardless of their disabilities.
“Your child may be different from others, but that does not mean you must treat them differently and let them be an outcast,” Leitao advised.
She told the parents about how she overcame social challenges in her life. Growing up, she said, she lived a lonely and distant existence because she was afraid of rejection.
“High school was the biggest knock - I was very shy and scared to go up to people and start conversations because I was afraid,” she said.
Leitao recounted how her family first found out about her disability when she was about 6 months old.
“My parents went away on holiday and I stayed with my grandparents,” Leitao said.
“When my parents came back home, my grandmother told them that there was something not right with me.
“She told them she had my eyesight tested and that it wasn’t that.”
At the time, she said, her parents thought her grandmother was “crazy”.
“She asked my mom to bang something behind me when I wasn’t looking. She did and I didn’t respond,” she said.
Leitao’s parents sought professional help and she was subsequently diagnosed with a profound sensorineural hearing loss (in the inner ear) and was fitted with hearing aids.
She was enrolled at a centre for hearing-impaired children, where she was taught to listen and to communicate.
Her parents were told she would never learn speech while wearing hearing aids and that she would qualify for a cochlear implant.
“At 22 months I was operated on. At that time I was the youngest child operated on here for a cochlear implant,” Leitao said.
At the centre her parents were encouraged to send her to a mainstream primary school.
There she found it difficult to cope because she was so shy.
But later she decided to enter the Miss Deaf South Africa competition to gain more confidence.
She also wanted to become more aware of the deaf community.
“As I got older and started to understand things better, I have started to have more confidence and started to believe in myself and accept myself for who I am,” Leitao said.