Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Failing to address Indigenous hearing health damages lives

As part of the Senate Community Affairs Committee Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia, the Australian Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, today urged the Australian Government to increase action against the disproportionately high incidence of hearing impairment and deafness among Indigenous peoples.

In making the Australian Human Rights Commission’s submission to the inquiry, Commissioner Innes said, “The disproportionate incidence of hearing impairment and deafness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, compared to the general community, is both symptomatic of the disadvantage they face and has grave repercussions, in terms of health and socio-economic experience, throughout their lives”.

Commissioner Innes said the statistics spoke for themselves.

The prevalence of hearing conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children up to three years of age was three times higher than for non-Indigenous children and deafness in children aged up to 14 was five times higher. While the World Health Organization states that a greater than 4% prevalence of Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media (CSOM) is a major public health problem, up to 40% of Indigenous children in remote areas suffer from it. Additionally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young adults between the ages of two and 20 years experience an average of 32 weeks of middle ear disease, compared with two weeks for non-Indigenous children and young adults.

The Productivity Commission recently noted that such high rates of recurring ear infections are associated with poverty, crowded housing conditions, inadequate access to clean water and functional sewerage systems, nutritional problems and access to health care.

“These figures are extremely concerning,” said Commissioner Innes. “When you consider that the very early childhood years are also the most critical development period for speech and language development (and thus communication, learning, and social and emotional development), it is not surprising to find that unaddressed hearing problems often become tied to resultant broader socio-economic disadvantage for these individuals.”

Commissioner Innes acknowledged that elements of the current government policy framework can positively contribute to addressing hearing impairment and deafness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

However, he said the Commission’s submission recommends that the Government implement measures that ensure adequate provision of accessible, affordable and culturally appropriate services; address socio-economic issues such as housing, diet and education; address race and disability discrimination issues; and support further research in Indigenous hearing and communication.

Media contact: Brinsley Marlay 02 9284 9656 or 0430 366 529