Olympian Sekou Kaba shares his story during TEDx Ottawa: Who Knew? at the Commons Theatre Sept. 28. He ended his speech by jumping over a track hurdle placed on stage to show how easy it is to overcome challenges with the right mindset.

As someone who grew up with undiagnosed learning disabilities in a time where they were misunderstood and left untreated, Dr. Shelley Ball struggled in school and didn’t think she’d ever achieve her goals.

It wasn’t until Grade 5 that she had a teacher who understood her and helped her succeed. Fast forward to 2017 and Ball has three degrees – an Honours, a Masters and a PhD – and is incredibly successful as a biologist. She says a large dose of grit and resilience are what kept her fighting through those hard times.

“Those disabilities never go away, I still deal with them but what I’ve learned are the work-arounds and how to circumvent them,” says Ball. “A huge piece of it is self-confidence because even if you have a disability if you just believe in yourself then you can achieve.”

Ball was one of many inspirational people who spoke at the sold-out TEDx Ottawa talk at the Algonquin Commons Theatre on Sept. 28.

Overcoming obstacles was a big focus of the TEDx Ottawa: Who Knew? convention. Sekou Kaba represented Canada in the 110m hurdles at the 2016 Rio Olympics. When not competing, Kaba is a motivational speaker sharing his tools for looking past barriers to accomplish goals. While a pro at literally overcoming hurdles now, if someone told Kaba years ago that he’d do a TED talk in English one day, he would’ve laughed in disbelief.

Born in Guinea, he moved to Michigan with his family at age 10, again to Georgia four years later and eventually settled in Canada as a permanent resident in 2007. Moving to the U.S. was tough for Kaba, and it took him “about eight or nine years” to become fluent in English. In Michigan, he was bullied for his accent and poor English which discouraged him from trying out for the track and field team at his new high school when he moved to Georgia. He then made it a goal to improve his English and with the help of a cousin, also built a home gym to prepare for the next track season.

“Where I got lucky [with English] is that the Georgian accent kicked in which is not proper English when you throw on the accent,” jokes Kaba. “That allowed me to perfect it more and when I arrived here through studying and mixing and mingling I picked up the Canadian accent.”

Kaba initially played football at his high school in Georgia, but later transitioned to track and became one of the best hurdlers in his school and in the region. He currently trains with the Ottawa Lions.

Human-centred designer Ariel Sim concluded the evening with an invigorating speech about the two sides of technology and how the heavy focus on consumer products in the digital age isn’t always beneficial to our well-being. “I want you to know I think we’re all cyborgs,” Sim stated during her talk, which generated surprised laughter from the audience. She explained a cyborg as something that adds components to humans’ bodies to improve performance and function. Examples include prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and pacemakers. According to Sim, they also include smart phones, tablets and other electronics since people increasingly rely on them to function.

After giving examples of how people use technology positively and negatively, plus exposing some dark sides of technology, Sim encouraged the audience to shut off their phones for the rest of her speech and for the rest of the evening until the next morning. She assured the audience that it’s okay if they have to turn their phones back on, but encouraged them to notice and observe their behaviour whenever they felt a need to check their phones and to notice their overall dependency on technology.

Lianne Laing, host of Ottawa’s CTV Morning Live was the MC of the event while Jenna Sudds, executive director of the Kanata North Business Association gave the show’s opening monologue.

A successful economic development professional who promotes Ottawa’s Technology Sector, Sudds is also the curator of TEDx Kanata and has been a longtime fan of the talks. “It’s something that I’ve always found inspiring and I’m constantly listening to them,” says Sudds. “The opportunity to speak here today and to share my Ottawa and the ‘who knew’ of that is pretty compelling.”