Ear health and hearing loss
With 10 times more Aboriginal people than non-Indigenous people suffering from ear diseases and hearing loss, Aboriginal ear and hearing health is in crisis.
- Percentage of Indigenous children aged 0-14 years with poor ear health living in remote communities in Queensland . Equivalent figure for 0-4 year-olds: 85%. In those years the auditory link with the brain develops.
- Times a child with hearing loss is more susceptible to sexual abuse .
- Percentage of Aboriginal inmates at Darwin Correctional Centre with hearing loss . Equivalent figure for male Aboriginal inmates in Alice Springs: 95% .
- Times Aboriginal people suffer more from ear disease and hearing loss than non-Indigenous people .
- Number of Aboriginal children in remote communities with healthy ears. 93% of Aboriginal children suffer from middle ear infections in early childhood. In remote NT communities this ranges from 8% to 50%. The WHO regards 4% as a 'massive public health problem'.
- Average time in weeks Aboriginal children and young adults aged 2 to 20 years suffer from middle ear disease. Equivalent figure for non-Indigenous children: 2 weeks .
- Proportion of male Aboriginal prisoners in Alice Springs prison who suffer from hearing loss. Same figure for Darwin: 92.5% .
Poor ear health starts in childhood with up to 95% of Aboriginal children suffering from middle ear infections—at four years the auditory link to the brain has formed.
Photo: Vox_Efx, Flickr
Can you believe that Aboriginal people have a greater chance of being locked up than non-Indigenous people because they can’t hear well?
Ear disease, hearing impairment and communication disorders along with the life-long otitis media (OM or glue ear) affect “exceptionally high” levels of Aboriginal children . About 75-80% of all Aboriginal children have had at least one episode of Otitis Media by the age of five .
These ear diseases reduce their ability to understand and follow what is being taught at school. Poor education leads to poorer employment and lower income, followed by lower living conditions and poorer health, thus completing a long-term cycle of a life of disadvantage. Overcrowding, poor diet, poor sanitation and passive smoking are other factors .
Aboriginal students with poor hearing participate less in classroom activities. In some cases that social exclusion progresses into a criminal career. As many as 80% have Otitis Media and associated hearing loss at some time during any school year, 10 times more than non-Aboriginal children .
Hearing-impaired Aboriginal people attending court hearings have to second-guess what is being asked or said, letting them admit things they did not do. Suspects treated as defiant or non-compliant because they didn’t respond to directions might simply not have heard them.
Hearing-impaired Aboriginal people are very prone to wrongful convictions. In 1961 a deaf-mute teenager was sentenced to death, but later to life imprisonment, because he made a false confession .
Hearing impairment has become “a significant disability in a custodial environment” , with evidence mounting that it is also an important component of Aboriginal disadvantage.
Prison guards in the Northern Territory are now carrying amplification devices to deal with prisoners’ hearing disabilities . Schools have started introducing surround-sound systems to amplify teachers’ voices in the classroom  (see also story below).
Police have a rule that disabled people must be given extra care, but abled speakers have difficulties relate to deaf and hearing-impaired people’s different concepts and experience of life. Researchers demand greater translation support, such as a “hand talk” (community sign language) translator, an Auslan translator and a cultural advisor .
Imprisonment [of hearing-impaired Aboriginal people] in some instances would be equivalent to solitary confinement.—Dr Damien Howard, Psychologist, Northern Territory 
The high prevalence of hearing loss among Aboriginal children points to it being an important factor in the high rates of abuse of Aboriginal children in Australia, says Damien Howard, psychologist in Darwin specialising in social and justice challenges faced by juveniles with a history of otitis media . No formal research has been done.
None of the welfare agencies involved in child protection have any awareness of the [poor ear health] issue, screen children, or consider it in their services or support.—Damien Howard, psychologist, Darwin 
20% of young Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory suffer from the most severe form of ear disease, chronic draining ears or burst eardrums . This is in stark contrast with Indigenous children in Nigeria (7.3%) and New Zealand’s Maori children (4%).
A federal inquiry into hearing health repeatedly found a relationship between hearing loss and early Aboriginal justice problems  which limits life chances of the young Aboriginal generation in education, employment and justice.
With ten times more Aboriginal people than non-Indigenous people suffering from ear diseases and hearing loss, Aboriginal ear and hearing health is “in crisis” .
Engagement between Indigenous people with a hearing loss and police can spiral into confrontation, as police mistake deafness for insolence, or for cultural or language communication difficulties.—Rachel Siewert, chair, Senate Community Affairs References Committee 
“Students are much happier”
A school in Meekatharra, about 760 kms north-east of Perth, Western Australia, was able to improve students’ learning and behaviour when it introduced microphones and speakers in the classrooms .
Teachers started to use the system in 2004 to enable all students hear instructions clearly. Amplifying the teacher’s voice increased attentiveness and on-task behaviour of the students.
“The students are not getting frustrated or confused about what is being asked of them. They are much happier with themselves because of their results, their confidence increases daily,” observes Toni Matthews, a Year 6/7 literacy and numeracy teacher.
Getting hearing back
Poor diet is one factor for declining ear health. Many Aboriginal families, especially in remote communities, only shop for food once a fortnight or occasionally. They choose food they can keep in the freezer which excludes fresh fruits or vegetables.
When doctors supplied families with subsidised vegetables they watched students’ hearing return, to the point that a formerly introduced amplification system could be abandoned, antibiotics cut down, and infections decline .
“It is very simple and was cheaper than buying antibiotics,” said one doctor. “Antibiotics cost $100 for a bottle but 100 [dollars] buys you a lot of fruit.”
The only hurdle to delivering more such programs is funding.
Poster promoting Aboriginal ear health. Note the subtle use of Aboriginal symbols and the word “mob” to make the poster culturally relevant. 
Last updated: 24 October 2012 | Out of respect for Aboriginal culture I use Indigenous sources as much as possible.
 'Injustices linked to poor hearing', Koori Mail 476 p.9
 'Hearing blow to inmates', Koori Mail 507 p.5
 'Hearing help for NT', Koori Mail 491 p.45
 'Healthy hearing project wins award', Koori Mail 409 p.75
 'Hearing loss hits inmates, tests reveal', Koori Mail 490 p.10
 'Researcher urges ear health action', Koori Mail 484 p.56
 'Fears for injustice', Koori Mail 524 p.9
 'Hear, hear to WA's new teaching aid', Koori Mail 367 p.70
 'KAMSC ear health promotion resources (2012)', Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council, Broome, www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/key-resources/promotion-resources?lid=23771, retrieved 6/10/2012
 'Doctors think inside the box for fresh ideas on health', SMH 7/5/2011