This month while delivering the Lionel Murphy Lecture, the Attorney-General Robert McClelland described the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australia’s criminal justice system as a "national shame".
During this speech he covered a number of important topics, including the imperative "justice reinvestment", but he failed to adequately address the underlying reasons why Indigenous incarceration rates are so high.
Such an omission reflects the long-term policy failure of successive governments to address the factors that contribute to Aboriginal disadvantage. One factor which is rarely mentioned in these discussions is that of hearing loss among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There’s a substantial body of evidence that links hearing health, educational outcomes and interaction with the justice system. But it’s a complex issue which may be why it’s so frequently overlooked.
This widespread hearing loss is most often linked to a condition called otitis media, a middle ear infection that affects most children at one time or another. For the majority of kids, it is short term condition, which passes without any lingering health effects, but that is often not the case for Aboriginal children.
It is reported that the condition affects 90 per cent of Aboriginal babies in the Northern Territory. It strikes at an earlier age and it’s effect is more severe than national averages or accepted public health levels.
Addressing the factors that cause otitis media to affect Aboriginal children to such an extent will require long-term commitment and investment — and these measures don’t fit easily into to a three-year election cycle.
It has been estimated that Aboriginal children experience ear disease for an average of two and a half years, compared to an average of three months for non-Aboriginal children, making the chance of hearing loss significantly higher. It also means that children face barriers to learning during their formative years, to the detriment of vital language skills and education.
In addition to learning and development, these hearing problems have been linked to negative outcomes in employment and training opportunities and the potential for involvement with the criminal justice system.
Recent research findings by the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Association indicated strong links between poor educational outcomes and the likelihood that a person will be charged with a criminal offence. The extent to which hearing impairment occurs within the Aboriginal prison population is yet to be fully investigated, but the levels are estimated to be very high.
Audiometic screening conducted by the Northern Territory Correctional Services found that over 90 per cent of inmates in both Darwin and Alice Springs prisons have a significant hearing loss. Testing of 150 women at Bandyup Women’s Prison in Western Australian found hearing loss in 46 per cent of Aboriginal women, compared to 10 per cent in the rest of the prison population.
As well as making contact with the criminal justice system more likely, hearing and communication problems have the potential to seriously compromise the legal process itself. Communication and language barriers make dealing with police, lawyers, and judges much harder.
Addressing these justice outcomes involves better awareness and understanding of hearing health issues and better investment in assistive technology — as well as continuing efforts to target hearing loss itself. The best processes to assist people with hearing impairment and reduce the long term prevalence of the condition will be the ones developed from the outset with a wide range of parties in full consultation with Aboriginal people and communities.
Such links have been documented in the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee report, ‘Hear Us: Hearing in Australia’, and the House of Representatives’ ‘Doing Time, Time for Doing’ report on juvenile justice.
Despite these reports and their respective recommendations, action to address the issues raised has been painfully slow. The prevalence of hearing health problems in Indigenous communities has been long acknowledged, there is no specific strategy in place to address it. This seems inconceivable given the commitment to Close the Gap.
Last week, an Aboriginal Children’s Hearing Health Forum discussed these issues and took the first steps toward the formation and delivery of a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Hearing Policy which will be supported across the political spectrum.
Participants from the forum are committed to working together to see action taken to improve hearing health and education outcomes. Those involved are health experts, educators and business people with strong links to the community.
With a strong foundation and collaborative approach, such a group has the potential to identify national policy needs, advocate for change, consolidate existing research and undertake new studies.
This is no small task. Both the state and federal governments need to commit to working collaboratively on a holistic, sustained, cross-disciplinary approach to addressing this issue and its effects. The hearing forum highlighted to me that the commitment, intelligence and passion is already there in the community. It only needs to be matched by political will.
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