Deafness leading to life of misery, say surgeons

Loss of hearing could be playing a role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children ending up in the juvenile justice system—and then hampering attempts for them to change their lives, according to Australia’s peak body for surgeons.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has told the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that the impact of ear disease and hearing loss on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the justice system was of “great concern”.

It raised the issue in a submission which was one of 62 published by the royal commission this week.

In a separate submission, the president of the Australian Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, Dr Christopher Perry, said up to 90 percent of inmates at some youth detention centres had been found to be deaf.

Dr Perry said national action was needed.

In its report, the RACS said increasing access to health and hearing services across States and Territories could prevent offending and give those in detention much-needed services to improve their hearing.

“The role that hearing difficulties can play in non-participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the education system and subsequent criminal offending is rarely highlighted,” it said.

“Through recognition of this critical problem we can begin to address this issue with improved training for healthcare workers, law enforcement officials and teachers, more research into the extent of the issue, and greater access and coordination of specialist health services.”

The RACS said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had a much higher incidence of middle-ear disease and hearing loss in infancy and childhood than non-Aboriginal children.

In remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, acute otitis media, a common middle-ear infection, was widespread as was chronic ear disease and hearing loss, it said.

The surgeons said ear disease could lead to delayed language development, poor communication and interpersonal problems in young children.

“Poor auditory perception impacts significantly on a child’s ability to learn, resulting in children leaving school early, often illiterate,” the submission said.

“Ongoing hearing impairment greatly affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s ability to participate in the education system and leads to increased absenteeism, illiteracy and other negative psychosocial outcomes.

“Studies into the prevalence of hearing impairment amongst detainees in correctional facilities have identified that most have significant hearing loss.”

The RACS recommended that police and prison officers be trained to detect and management hearing impairment and loss in children in custody. The juvenile justice system should also have the resources for hearing tests.

The RACS said people’s ability to receive and understand instructions and information can be severely restricted if they have a hearing problem.

Children with hearing loss were also known to be more vulnerable to being victims of abuse and children and young people who had been abused or neglected were at a greater risk of engaging in criminal activity and ending up in custody, it said.

Early diagnosis and treatment in the community was also critical and families and schools should receive training in picking up hearing impairments.

Dr Perry also raised the issue of the high rate of deafness in Indigenous people in youth detention centres in Australia with the commission.

“The Deadly Ears program in Queensland went to youth detention centres in Mareeba and Brisbane,” he said. “Boystown went to the youth detention centre in Adelaide. The Telethon Group in West Australia went to their youth detention centre, as did Dr Damien Howard with backup from audiologists and doctors from the Menzies School of Medicine in Darwin.

“They found that between 80 and 90 percent of the Indigenous inmates in these youth detention facilities were deaf.

“There is a clear association between deafness and poor language development. There is a consequent association which is well described between deafness, poor language and listening skills with underperformance at school, secondary truancy and unacceptably high rates of illiteracy in people who have attended school in remote Aboriginal communities.”

Dr Perry said a national response to the issue was needed.

Wendy Caccetta

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