Senate debates

Monday, 7 November 2011


Indigenous Health

5:10 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I was very pleased to read the response of the Premier of Queensland to the resolution of the Senate of 22 September relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander hearing health. In that resolution, the Senate noted that a group of experts from the health and education sector, community representatives and business had met here to talk about hearing health. It also noted the importance of hearing health and the occurrence of otitis media and the extraordinary rate at which it is affecting Aboriginal communities. The substantive paragraph was:

(b) calls on state and federal governments to commit to working collaboratively on a holistic, sustained, cross-disciplinary approach to addressing this issue and its effects.

Premier Bligh has written to inform the Senate of the Deadly Ears program that is currently running in 12 communities in remote Queensland. Apparently over 3,000 children have been treated and the program has delivered over 700 surgical procedures. People from Deadly Ears in fact attended the forum that was held in parliament and talked about the importance of their program—the fact that it is a multidisciplinary service and that the team is dedicated to promoting health, workforce development and staff training in allied health services.

The important thing here is that this is in Queensland; it is not going to all communities. The Premier noted at the end of her letter that the Queensland government would welcome any move to extend this successful program to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children elsewhere in Australia. I certainly support the suggestion that this is the type of program that does need to be supported. It is absolutely essential that we target specific programs to address otitis media so that we deal with the problem where it starts.

Having said that, it is absolutely crucial that we have a coordinated, holistic approach, which the motion also went to. Unfortunately, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been affected by otitis media to a point where their hearing has been significantly impacted, and that has impacted their learning processes. A child's brain starts to develop its language skills and to allocate functions from around six months old. We already know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can be infected with otitis media from three weeks old and then subsequently reinfected. We have a situation where many children have already suffered significant hearing impairment when they start attending school, and unfortunately the school programs at the moment are not meeting their needs. Children are perhaps being taught in a language that is not their first language, they cannot hear, and there are no sound fields in their classrooms. The unfortunate situation we heard about during the Community Affairs References Committee inquiry, which we documented in our report Hear us, is that sound fields are not universally accessible in classrooms across this country and Australian Hearing is unable to provide funding for sound fields in classrooms.

While I acknowledge that the government has committed further funding to assist students with disabilities in schools and has, as I understand it, indicated that a school could apply for funding for a sound field, it is not a universal program. If we are to address hearing impairment, language development and educational outcomes, we need to address this issue as children start day one of their school life. Not only that but, as the community affairs committee report also recommended, testing programs should be undertaken as students start preschool and school. The newborn screening program picks up only a percentage of hearing loss—that is, genetic hearing loss or hearing loss at birth. As I have just articulated, otitis media infects babies once they are born. So that program does not pick up the hearing loss associated with continual otitis media, or glue ear, as it is commonly known. What we need, therefore, is a program which screens every child as they begin school.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs recommended that such a program should be universal and should start particularly with schools which have a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. We know very clearly from the research that those children are disproportionately affected by otitis media, by glue ear, and therefore have subsequent hearing loss. I very strongly commend the fact that this program is running in Queensland. I have in fact met on several occasions people working in this program. I understand it is having a positive impact and needs to be rolled out further across the country as part of a holistic plan to address hearing health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs documented that the impact it can have is that students are alienated from school and the educating system, have poor educational outcomes, experience social isolation and increased contact with juvenile justice and the justice system. From recent research, we know that 90 per cent of the Aboriginal prisoners in the Darwin Correctional Centre have some form of hearing impairment. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that there is an issue here. We constantly talk in this place about addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interaction with the justice system, poor educational outcomes and the need to develop better employment outcomes. We need to be joining the dots and making sure that we have a comprehensive and holistic plan which addresses hearing health. We will start addressing some of the very poor statistics and poor educational and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Question agreed to.