…The inquiry heard that Aboriginal children suffer the highest rates of ear disease and hearing loss of any people in the world. There’s no national survey to establish the exact size of the problem; but in both remote and urban areas, there are signs of a national epidemic. The Federal Department of Health and Ageing cited a recent survey of 29 NT communities, which found only seven per cent of Aboriginal children had healthy middle ears. An audiologist at Alice Springs, who asked not to be named, says that if she finds one single child with normal hearing in the communities she visits, she’s ‘ecstatic’.
…But the Senate inquiry hints at something far worse: in relation to Aboriginal rates of OM, it says “there is likely to be a link between hearing impairment and higher levels of engagement with the criminal justice system.”
As well as their work with indigenous children, Telethon Speech and Hearing has just become the first non-government agency to screen the entire indigenous population of a jail. From April to June this year, Anne O’Leary personally tested 104 Aboriginal women at Bandyup Prison, on the outskirts of Perth.
Of 104, 45 failed a hearing test and needed a referral. 13 had perforated eardrums. 7 had scarred eardrums. 4 had ears discharging pus.
…Anne O’Leary says having hearing loss in prison is the ultimate isolation.
“A lot of [the women] would just withdraw into their rooms and shut down, really, because it’s just too hard to carry on conversation, people think you’re ignorant if you can’t hear,” she says.
According to Telethon Speech and Hearing’s interviews with the women, the prison officers did not realise the prisoners had hearing loss in one, or both, their ears.
“A huge amount of them commented that they had been getting into trouble for not coming when they were called, which is a bit tragic because they actually can’t hear over the PA systems or when someone’s calling them,” Anne O’Leary says.
“These women had similar ears to the children but they’ve had them for 10, 20, 30 years.”