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Opinion: Reflecting on a decade of hearing loss and deafness advocacy in Australia

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World Hearing Day

World Hearing Day is an opportunity for us to recognise the importance of hearing health for all, especially for many Australians where the conversation about hearing is often avoided or ignored due to a general discomfort with the subject.

For one in six Australians with hearing loss, who are deaf, or have an ear or balance disorder, and the many families who support them it is vital that organisations like the Deafness Forum of Australia exist. They play a crucial role in promoting the rights and interests of those with hearing loss, working to ensure that they have equal access to opportunities and services in all aspects of life.

Working with government agencies, service providers, and other organisations, the Deafness Forum raises awareness of hearing loss and prevention strategies and drives change to improve the lives of those affected. Through its advocacy, programs and community engagement, the Deafness Forum is a powerful voice for Australians with hearing loss and an important resource for those in need of support and assistance. Australians can be proud we have this voice to address one of our nation’s largest health issues.

It is an honour to be the Chairperson of the Deafness Forum, a role that I have had the privilege of holding for the last 11 years.

My role as Chairperson is a volunteer position that aims to advocate, engage, and interact with Federal and State Governments to push for positive change for the 3.5 million Australians we represent.

Any volunteer position requires individuals to make significant time commitments and be dedicated to the task ahead. While there are obstacles, volunteering offers rewarding experiences for people looking to give back to the community. The task of advocating for millions of Australians facing daily obstacles in areas such as access, communication, health, and human rights is made possible by the work of many volunteers sharing their insights and experience towards a better Australia for all our members and the people we represent.

When I became Chairperson in 2011, it was clear that Australians did not want to have a conversation about hearing loss. It was rare for anyone to have the courage to discuss the matter with me and our organisation’s CEO at Parliament, save a few from both sides of the tent. Back in 2011, Australia had no plan for hearing health and deafness. Hearing loss services were not going to be included in the NDIS, and the stigma around hearing loss was real.

For me, 2011 was a baptism of fire. In my experience, most would run away or resign, rather than stand up for what their members really needed and wanted. I was not naïve to the fact it was going to be hard. I would be ignored, be unpopular, and be told “be a good deaf boy and stay in your lane.” What they did not expect was my determination and passion to make a difference in Australia. We had to make it our time.

If there was a halcyon time for the deafness sector, it was the decade from 2012 to 2022. Through the vast networks created by the Deafness Forum and its many member organisations, throughout all Australian States and Territories, we got together and made real change.

The first achievement was to come together to campaign under the banner of ‘Break the Sound Barrier’, to make hearing health and well-being a national priority. I reached out to the Deafness Forum membership and networks, bringing together more than 40 national and state organisations, to call for donations and work together to lobby the Abbot then Turnbull Governments to host a parliamentary inquiry led by Trent Zimmerman MP. The inquiry received more than 200 submissions and held 11 hearings across Australia.

We paved the way to ensure Australians who were deaf or have hearing loss, especially children up to 26 years of age, were eligible to be in the NDIS. What could have been a missed opportunity turned into a successful collaborative effort by the sector.

Then Minister Ken Wyatt AM MP picked up the parliamentary inquiry report and heard our collective voices to push for the creation of a national Hearing Health Roadmap for Australia. We spearheaded a world-first strategic document to guide the country in addressing the challenges and issues of hearing health and deafness. The Roadmap enabled Hearing Australia to expand from 75 years of services to children, veterans, and pensioners, to a broader focus and to tackle the massive challenges of hearing health for indigenous Australians, including otitis media with partners from across the health and deafness sector.

The Roadmap’s impact does not stop there. Australia saw greater visibility for Auslan interpreters in the context of government and emergency announcements, which was particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Commonwealth and State Parliaments, spearheaded by NSW, implemented live auto-captioning, and we saw the first steps towards improvements in hearing health and deafness support information for aged care workers and administrators.

We also saw support for early intervention, with funding committed to The Shepherd Centre for new centres across Australia, and the relocation of NextSense. Our sole hearing device manufacturer, Cochlear, grew stronger, learning audiology at our Australian Universities became more popular, and the language of Auslan became incorporated into school curriculums. In 2023, Australians should see the first true, government-funded National Hearing Health campaign to start the national conversation on hearing health, addressing noise and age-induced hearing loss.

The Deafness Forum was awarded national health peak status by the Commonwealth Government in 2022 in recognition of its tireless efforts. This recognition grants the organisation a strong voice to advocate on behalf of millions of Australians now and into the future.

This World Hearing Day 2023, we celebrate an incredible 10 years of sector leadership, collaboration, and engagement between consumers, charities, corporates, the health sector, and the government. What a remarkable tale of triumph that makes all Australians proud of what can be accomplished and excited for a future where we make ear and hearing care a reality for all!

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David was born with profound hearing loss and wears two hearing aids since birth. He has a Master of Science and Graduate Diploma in Project Management. He is a member of The Shepherd Centre Executive Management team, a not for profit national organisation providing support for deaf children 0-18 years of age and their families. As a volunteer he is the 7th Chairperson of Deafness Forum of Australia and is the national public voice for the deafness sector.


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