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As an organisation, CEF is committed to achieving educational equality for our rural and regional students. We know the statistics and the challenges they face in accessing education.

But what about our rural and regional students who also live with a disability?

At just 19 years of age, the remarkable Karlee Symonds from Shoalhaven Heads on the South Coast of NSW, is achieving in ways that showcase the true capabilities of people living with a disability.

Local Foundation:
Shoalhaven Education Fund

University of Wollongong

Bachelor of Medical and Health Science

Year of study in 2021:
1st year

Other CEF funding:
Snow Foundation and Audi Foundation scholar


Karlee was born with an inherited genetic eye condition that causes severe vison loss, and is classified as legally blind.

This experience gave Karlee a passion for genetics and led her straight to a Bachelor of Health and Medical Science with the University of Wollongong. After completing her undergraduate degree, she plans to obtain a Master of Genetic Counselling, a highly specialised and emerging field.

Genetic Counsellors provide information about how genetic conditions are inherited or who in families may be at risk of developing a particular condition.

Importantly, they also provide emotional and practical support to help people adjust to living with, or being at risk of, a genetic condition.

I have witnessed the style of work a genetic counsellor performs and have firsthand experience of the impact a genetic counsellor can have on one’s life.

With most Genetic Counsellors practicing in metropolitan areas, Karlee hopes to take her education back to regional areas to provide this service, ‘ultimately to prevent unnecessary travel for many individuals,’ something she no doubt faced growing up.

Finishing her first year of university at the end of 2021 amidst all the COVID confusion is an achievement of which Karlee is especially proud, as online learning can be particularly challenging. ‘I rely on my sense of touch to feel diagrams and models. Zoom classes and practical sessions online in the spring semester meant I was unable to feel the models or diagrams, which made it hard to visualise in my head.’

Despite the unique and complex challenges presented to her, Karlee received High Distinctions and Distinctions, something few people can claim at the best of times.

But, it is the Distinction in Chemistry that she is most proud of because she ‘found it to be the hardest subject as some parts were quite visual.’


The financial support Karlee received from the Shoalhaven Education Fund (SEF) and CEF partners The Snow Foundation and Audi Foundation, enabled her to purchase the expensive materials and technology she needs in order to successfully undertake her studies.

Additionally, unable to drive and with a lack of public transport nearby, getting to and from university is really expensive for Karlee, and the CEF scholarships and grants helped with this too. ‘Without the valuable funds I would have struggled to travel up to uni each week.’

She has been able to purchase a PIAF tactile image maker. What exactly is this? Karlee explains, ‘it is a machine capable of transferring drawings and diagrams into a tactile format for me to feel.’

She was even able to enlist some tutoring support for that pesky Chemistry subject, an investment that definitely paid off.

Just like the wonderful volunteers from the Shoalhaven Education Fund who have supported her, Karlee is keen to help others, whether it be helping other regional students to pursue their dreams or challenging and changing public perceptions of those who live with disability.

Don’t let other people’s perceptions limit your ability.
Focus on what you love and never give up on your dreams.


Accessibility. Equity. Capability.

These are words that are so very important to Karlee, and with good reason.

Despite technological advancements and campaigns to correct the misconceptions of those living with a disability, it is clear there is still a long road ahead.

Karlee knows this and is determined to help drive change.

I aim to be a role model for other individuals who live with disabilities, especially those with vision impairment. Constantly, people are telling us what we are capable of doing and I want to prove that we can pursue any dream or aspiration and are just as capable as other individuals.

Karlie with her Guide Dog, Olympia.

In her impressive scholarship second round questions, Karlee informed us that ‘statistics demonstrate that people living with vision impairment are far less likely to gain employment,’ and until we looked at the numbers, we didn’t realise just how right she is.

Like many of the 3.96 million Australians living with a disability, Karlee has found it difficult to gain employment due to ‘false perceptions and negative attitudes.’

This is one of the reasons financial support from CEF has been so important to her.

58% of people who are blind or have low vision and want to work are unemployed.

And that is just wrong.

Like the wider population, many of those living with a disability are intelligent, dedicated and talented. As Karlee accurately states, they are
capable and willing to make great contributions not only to the workforce but to our communities. And in her case, even our country.

I believe that through completing my degree I will increase my chances of employment, helping to bridge the gap between employment rates of people with disabilities and able-bodied individuals.


Not only is Karlee an impressive student, an inspirational advocate for people living with disability and an all-round lovely person, she is a competitive para athlete.

And a very accomplished one at that.

Since she started competing at the age of 15, she has broken many Australian records in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m track events.

She represented the University of Wollongong at the 2021 University Athletic Games, bringing home a gold medal which was a highlight of the year for her – probably on par with that Chemistry Distinction.

Watch Karlee break the Australian & Oceania 100m record (T11) in 14.31 seconds.

She is a member of Athletics Wollongong; represented Australia at the 2019 Oceania Area Championships and is committed to – and has a great chance of – representing her country at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.

There are very few completely blind athletes in the sport of track and field, and I hope to one day change that, and inspire other vision impaired individuals to follow both their academic and sporting dreams.

Karlee doesn’t just win gold, she is gold. Whether she is acing exams, breaking records or smashing stereotypes, Karlee is an extremely impressive young woman. Despite living in the dark, she is more enlightened than most.


Author Nicole

CEF Engagement & Development

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