Opposition health spokesman Roger Cook speaks with 'Ear Bus' staffers, worried that the thousands of children they screen each year for hearing problems will now fall through the cracks. Photo: Emma Young
When I was about seven years old, I was sent to speech therapy. Over a few months, I worked with a therapist to correct patterns of discussion and counteract a well-developed mumble which I had acquired. In the years that followed, many people remarked on my comparatively refined "accent" and are usually shocked when I tell them how I acquired it. So why then, as a child, did I mumble? It was because, like many Aboriginal children, years of chronic ear disease had left me speaking how I heard the words being said to me.
While I had navigated the system educationally in these younger years so that somehow my writing and reading skills became quite advanced, I continually had issues grasping spoken instruction. This led to behavioural issues such as frustration and social withdrawal. I was beyond awkward and introverted. Speech therapy and the insertion of grommets was the beginning of what has been a lifetime of treatment for ear ailments. Even now, a good cold can halve my hearing ability for up to three weeks, tinnitus is a fact of life, and perforated ear drums are normal.
Aboriginal children experience ear ailments at a rate ten times that of what other children experience in some communities. The diagnosis and treatment of ear problems in Aboriginal children are thought to be a crucial part of closing the gap in educational attainment. Children who can hear instruction have an easier time at school and are less likely to experience isolation. In addition, it has been found that a disproportionately high number of Aboriginal inmates in the prison system (up to 95% in some Northern Territory prisons) suffer from ear problems. Early diagnosis of ear problems in Aboriginal children and access to proper care is therefore thought to potentially contribute to a reduction of incarceration rates in later years.
A young boy gets a check-up on Telethon Speech and Hearing's Ear Health Ear Bus. Photo: Telethon Speech & Hearing YouTube
With all this in mind, why does the Western Australian government feel it is appropriate to cut funding to a crucial Aboriginal children's ear clinic? The "ear bus" – which provides checks, treatment and follow-up for up to 4000 Aboriginal children per year around the Perth, Bunbury and Northam areas – was informed by the state government that it was having its funding cut via email two weeks ago with the government planning to move this, and other Aboriginal health programs, "in house".
Telethon Speech and Hearing's Ear Health Ear Bus, which has been run on a comparatively meagre $700,000 per year, has achieved remarkable results. The rates of screening have grown from 65%, from when the state government last ran the program in house, to over 80%. The rates of ailment have more than halved in the communities the Ear Bus works in. Moreover, important community relationships have been fostered in the five years it has been in operation leading to a high approval rating for the services and the building of trust. The Western Australian government choosing to cut funding to a program which clearly works, which has led to an increase in children accessing care, and which could positively impact future educational attainment rates and decrease social isolation makes no sense at all.
Additionally, as the Closing the Gap reports continue to show, literacy and numeracy rates of Aboriginal children are not improving in line with the projected targets set by the Federal Government. There has, in fact, been no overall improvement to these rates since 2008, despite a commitment to halve this gap by 2018. Ensuring that Aboriginal children with ear disease have appropriate and ongoing care will contribute to the lessening of this educational gap. It therefore appears that the Western Australian government is more committed to cost-cutting than it is to the health and education of Aboriginal children.
Despite the fact that I will have ear problems for life and indeed am facing restorative operations and severe hearing loss later on, I am forever thankful that my issues were picked up and that I was able to access appropriate treatment as a child. This treatment allowed me to catch up to my peers at school as well as develop mechanisms to cope with my limitations. My focus on writing as a key communication mode is indeed a huge part of learning to work with these limitations. The likelihood of me eventually finishing school and going on to university would have been severely diminished had these problems not been addressed.
That so many other Aboriginal children who have similar problems with ear disease are not only unable to receive care but are having services which work removed from them is unconscionable. If the Western Australian government is at all dedicated to health, education and equality for Aboriginal people, it would do well to not only restore funding to the Ear Bus program, but look at expanding it so more children and communities could benefit from these services across the state.