What profound impact could be had on high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration by ensuring better hearing for children and adults? It’s an important question raised in this moving post below, to mark Hearing Awareness Week, from Sam Harkus, Principal Audiologist, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Services.
See also another moving story from the Aboriginal Hearing Program published by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and, at the bottom of the post, a call from Menzies School of Health Research for more investment in the prevention and treatment of ear disease and hearing loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Twitter users may also be interested to follow the hashtag #HAW16 and @wepublichealth, which is being hosted this week by Kim Jones, chair of Hear for You, and David Brady, Chairperson of Deafness Forum.
Sam Harkus writes
It’s Hearing Awareness Week. Hearing loss is over-represented among prisoners, and Aboriginal people are over-represented in our gaols. Here’s a short story from the criminal justice system.
Around 15 years ago we saw a 36 year old Aboriginal woman. She had been in and out of prison 18 times: once a year since she turned 18.
She was brought in to see the Ear Specialist at an Aboriginal Medical Service, where we were working on the day. This was the first time help had been sought for her ears and hearing.
This woman had moderately severe hearing loss in her better ear and severe hearing loss in her worse ear, caused by ear infection.
When talking with this lady, she always looked tense. She watched people intently while they talked, always frowning. She sat on the edge of her seat, hunching towards me.
For someone who could only possibly hear fragments of words, she communicated well. Behind the scenes, she was working hard to do this: putting what she could hear and see together to make sense of what I was saying.
I asked her how she managed in a court room. When questions were asked, could she hear them? She said she guessed what she was being asked, and answered that.
I asked her about how she managed day to day in prison. She went regularly to rehab meetings, a round circle discussion, but couldn’t hear so didn’t contribute.
As she was growing up, she had wanted to be a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery. One day she realised that she could never do that, because people at the counter needed to be able to speak discreetly. Raising their voices so that the receptionist could hear would never do.
She was put on the waiting list for surgery, and in the meantime the prison agreed to provide a hearing aid for her.
When we saw her after her hearing aid fitting, she was a changed woman: she was wearing the aid and smiling, not frowning. She was sitting back in her chair looking relaxed.
She talked about the difference for her: she could talk to her mum over the phone. She could take part in rehab discussions and was finding that was good. She said ‘There’s nothing better than being able to hear’.
Later we heard that she had become the Koori Women’s Delegate at the prison: representing the interests of Aboriginal women in prison with her. Being able to hear easily enabled her to start realising her own potential.
Then she left prison and we lost contact. I often wonder where she is and what she is doing now.
This woman and the whole experience made a huge impression on me. I had just read this article by Damien Howard and Sue Quinn on Aboriginal hearing loss and the criminal justice system, and this breathed life into it. Many of the issues dealt with in the article became real, including the challenges of the court room.
As an audiologist of ten years experience at that point, in a country with relatively good access to hearing services, I had not come across anyone before who had had such a significant level of unremediated hearing loss for so long. How many cracks had she slipped through to get this far without help? How good was our system if that was able to happen?
Because her significant hearing loss had gone on for so long, the change in her after receiving the hearing aid was dramatic, including the transformation in the way in which she physically held herself. This was the first time I had seen this.
It was also a lesson for me in the way hearing loss disempowered, and the way being able to hear well again empowered. Look at what she was able to achieve with one hearing aid, and look at how she had been limited by not being able to hear. Imagine how disappointing the realisation was that her dream job was out of her reach. What had been the relationship between her lifelong hearing loss and her incarceration?
I will never forget her statement: ‘There’s nothing better than being able to hear.’
Statement from Menzies School of Health Research:
In recognition of Hearing Awareness Week (August 21-27), leading ear health experts at Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) are calling for more investment in the prevention and treatment of ear disease and hearing loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Menzies Professor Amanda Leach says the failure to recognise the damage of prior or current ear disease and hearing loss imposes further disadvantage to Indigenous children that might already be struggling in the education and juvenile detention systems.
“Indigenous children have the highest rates of otitis media – commonly known as middle ear infection – and burst eardrums in the world,” Prof Leach explained.
“In remote communities, otitis media and significant hearing loss establishes in almost all babies within weeks of birth. Research has revealed these ear infections are not as painful for Indigenous children compared to non-Indigenous children, so the disease progresses undetected and often results in perforated ear drums. “Hearing loss impacts on the development of speech and language and is linked to educational disadvantage, communication and behavioural problems.”
“Indigenous children almost always have bilateral hearing loss which impacts on auditory processing difficulties, lead to social isolation, disengagement with the education system, their community and their peers.”
Prof Leach said Hearing Awareness Week provides an opportunity to help Australians understand the difficulties Indigenous children with ear disease and hearing loss face and how hearing loss impacts everything from education outcomes, to employment opportunities, to living standards and personal safety.
A National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded Centre of Research Excellence in Ear and Hearing Health of Indigenous children (CRE_ICHEAR), led by Prof Leach, is dedicated to improving ear and hearing health among Indigenous children and ending the disadvantage associated with hearing loss.
“Indigenous leaders, researchers and other experts in our CRE_ICHEAR have worked hard to find out what works and what needs to be done in addressing potential prevention and treatment strategies, but more is needed. What we really need is a whole of government approach”, Prof Leach said.
“The health sector needs to invest in clinical training; clinicians need to understand the aetiology and appropriate use of antibiotics when treating ear disease; and the education system needs to allocate resources to training teachers in effective strategies for engaging and teaching children who have hearing loss.”
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