Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Community Affairs References Committee; Report

5:47 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Community Affairs References Committee report on the inquiry into the prevalence of different types of speech, language and communication disorders and speech pathology services in Australia. The inquiry looked at the dimensions of speech and swallowing disorders in Australia and the prevalence amongst specific groups as well as the demand for and the delivery of services. The committee report makes a total of 10 recommendations. The most significant of these recommendations is the last one, which states:

The committee recommends that the federal government working with state and territory governments, consider the costs to the individual and to society of failing to intervene in a timely and effective way to address speech and language disorders in Australia and address these issues in the development of relevant policies and programs.

The committee recommends that the federal government work with state and territory governments and stakeholders to ensure that parents and carers have access to information about the significance of speech and language disorders and the services that they can access to address them.

This recommendation reflects the evidence presented to the committee on the importance of verbal communication for a person's development and wellbeing. Evidence presented to the committee shows that a speech, language or communication disorder can have a significant impact on a person's health, wellbeing, education and employment outcomes.

In relation to my home state of Tasmania, the committee heard that the state government employs approximately 39.7 full-time equivalent speech pathologists. These employees work across the state. The Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services gave evidence to the committee and identified a number of gaps in the provision of speech pathology services in Tasmania. Specifically, the department noted a significant gap in the lack of locally based services in the northern half of the east coast. The department added, however, that, in areas with limited access to speech pathology services, video and teleconferencing is utilised to improve timeliness of access to services. A significant service gap was also identified in the area of the juvenile justice system in Tasmania. The department stated:

Youth offenders are complex and challenging for policymakers and practitioners alike and face high risks for long-term disadvantage and social marginalisation

Other significant service gaps were noted in the aged care sector and in cancer care, Aboriginal services and community services in the north of the state.

As part of this inquiry the committee also had the opportunity to conduct several site visits. I had the opportunity to visit the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at the University of Sydney. Research at the ASRC is facilitated by close collaboration with the stuttering unit within the Bankstown health service, which is a specialist treatment facility located nearby. As well as collaborating in research, the ASRC and the stuttering unit, along with Macquarie University, conduct a program of continuing professional education in stuttering. The centre's director, Professor Mark Onslow, emphasised the importance of early intervention in addressing a child's stuttering. Professor Onslow spoke to the committee about the high success rate of early intervention and the long-term benefits of intervention. Professor Onslow explained that these interventions not only benefited the individual's health and wellbeing but society as a whole. Some of the most compelling evidence heard by the committee was from individuals diagnosed with and treated for speech language and communication disorders. The committee heard of the barriers that people face in employment, in education and in everyday life—the time, money and commitment needed to access vital services and supports.

I would encourage senators to read some of the evidence and submissions by people who experience language, speech and communication disorders. As a member of the committee, I particularly thank those people for their contribution to this inquiry. In her evidence to the committee, Georgia Cranko, a university student who lives with a communication disability, said:

Even though, to all intents and purposes, I am a successful communicator who has had access to a decent mainstream education, I still feel my opportunities and quality of life are impacted by the fact that I am non-verbal. But I am using this opportunity to ask for more support for communication specialists, including speech pathologists, who can help facilitate greater educational opportunities. That will give those of us who have little or no speech a greater opportunity to be heard, thus giving us agency over our lives and our ability to contribute to society at large.

That is exactly what this committee report is about. It is the first time that a federal parliamentary committee has focused on the availability and adequacy of speech pathology services in Australia. For the first time, we have heard about the barriers faced by people living with these disorders and the importance of intervention and supports. It was also the first time that many of the individuals living with these conditions, as well as their families and carers, have had the opportunity to have their voices heard by parliament and considered by the government.

I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Speech Pathology Australia. Speech Pathology Australia has provided the committee with invaluable assistance and guidance throughout the inquiry process. The evidence to the committee from over 300 submissions and four days of public hearings made it clear that failing to treat childhood speech, language and communication disorders contributes to significant lifelong problems. The committee heard evidence of the range of problems that people living with these disorders face, including limited employment options often leading to periods of unemployment, a dependency on welfare, the psychological and emotional distress to the sufferer, their family and carers, and in many cases interactions with the justice system.

The committee also heard evidence about the lack of reliable data in the area. Access to data is vital for policy makers in government to understand the dimensions of the issue and frame an appropriate response. Policy developers are limited by the lack of reliable national data, including on the prevalence of speech and communication disorders and the demand for pathology services. The evidence has also made it clear that the demand for speech pathology services in Australia outstrips supply of these services. Many submitters identified the NDIS as a driver of increased demand for speech pathology services. Given the evidence on the impact, it is vital that the Commonwealth, state and territory governments work together with key stakeholders to address the issues identified in this report. I commend the report to the Senate and the government.


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