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While delivering the recent Lionel Murphy lecture, Attorney-General Robert McClelland described the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australia's criminal justice system as a 'national shame'. Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan has discussed the dramatic over-representation of Aboriginal youth in some WA crime statistics, rightly pointing out the need to deal with the systemic social issues that contribute to these alarming figures. One often overlooked factor linked to disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is hearing loss, despite a substantial body of evidence which links hearing health, educational outcomes and interaction with the justice system.
A reason this issue could frequently be overlooked is its inherent complexity. This widespread hearing loss is most often linked to a condition called otitis media, a middle ear infection which affects 90% of Aboriginal babies in the Northern Territory. It strikes at an early age and is significantly more severe than national averages or accepted public health levels, with Aboriginal children estimated to experience ear disease for an average of 2.5 years, compared with an average of 3 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 education. These hearing problems have been linked to a range of negative outcomes around employment and training opportunities and the potential for involvement in crime.
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. Addressing these justice outcomes involves better awareness and understanding of hearing health issues and better investment in assistive technology, above and beyond 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 is one which, from the outset, is developed with a wide range of parties in full consultation with Aboriginal people and communities.
Such recommendations have been documented in the Senate community affairs reference committee report Hear us: hearing in Australia and the House of Representative's Doing time, time for doing report on juvenile justice. Despite these reports and their recommendations, action to address the issues raised has been slow.