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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6172

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:59): I rise tonight to acknowledge that this week is Hearing Awareness Week.

Senator Feeney: Pardon?

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you, Senator Feeney. I will take that interruption and let you know that there are places you can go this week that offer free hearing tests. Hopefully, you would be able to hear my contribution with interest in the Senate tonight if you turned the hearing aid up. I also let you know that there are 3½ million Australians who suffer from hearing loss. I want to relate an experience I had this morning, because it is Hearing Awareness Week. I am a very old and, after a game, sore member of the parliamentary netball team. This morning I participated in a very exciting game of netball organised by the Parliamentary Sports Association with local deaf athletes, including former Paralympians. We all had to participate with earplugs in our ears so that those of us who are hearing athletes—and I use that term loosely—could experience a game of netball in almost silence. There was no whistle to stop the play of the game, only flags. Dave, our usual volunteer umpire from Netball ACT, was really excited to be able to umpire the game using flags and no whistle.

One of the interesting things that we found in experiencing this morning's game was that those who were hearing impaired stopped immediately when the flags were raised to see what the umpire was going to call, yet those with earplugs, such as me, Graham Perrett and associated others, just kept running and attempted to win the game. We competed hard for the ball, whether the flags were waved or not. The lesson is that the other four senses of the hearing impaired were heightened over time in order to take in their surrounds and participate effectively in the fast-moving game of netball. Those of us with hearing intact were slower to adapt and perhaps not used to having to use the other senses in such a way for those external cues.

I thank the Parliamentary Sports Association, the MPs involved and our staff who participated in this bipartisan event. Tomorrow, for those who are interested, the touch team will be playing a deaf game of touch, so watch out!

Although hearing loss changes the way a person might communicate it should not limit their involvement in society. That is what this morning's event was all about: full participation in all the richness of our community activities, including sport. In this instance, there were a few minor changes to how we play netball. The game was competitive and just like any other that I have participated in.

One in six Australians suffers from some form of hearing loss, although this is expected to climb to one in four by 2050. Do not assume it is always our ageing population, Senator Feeney, who are affected. Over one third of people acquire hearing difficulties through preventable means. Just today I was talking to one of our shadow ministers in the other place who was deaf for the first four years of his life due to an infection as a child. He relayed to me the experience at the age of four when the issue was resolved: how afraid he became of the world because he had been living in a quiet bubble for four years, and how all the new noises and changes affected his young experience.

As I mentioned, there are 3½ million Australians with hearing loss—that is, roughly 2,500 people in each federal electorate. For those who are aged between 45 and 65 with hearing loss, your chances of participating in the workforce are 20 per cent lower if you are male and 16 per cent lower if you are female. That is interesting, considering that constant exposure to excessive workplace noise leads to an increased chance of hearing loss later in life. Hearing loss costs Australia $11.5 billion annually, mostly in productivity, yet those who are affected suffer their own financial hardships. Personal expenses can climb. Hearing aids are expensive, as are their upgrades, and it can be difficult to communicate using Auslan because of the lack of trained interpreters. For regional sufferers, that issue is compounded.

School is a challenge for hearing impaired students when it cannot provide the essential services they need. While hearing impairment can also be quite isolating and the social disconnect can be great, a crowded, loud restaurant can prove challenging to hear a conversation across the table. A concert can cause hearing distress and discomfort, despite an otherwise loud environment, while a ringing telephone would mean little to someone who is deaf or hearing impaired and, therefore, they are missing out on human contact. There are special telephones for the hearing impaired but, as I have mentioned before, this would be a cost additional to a list of other costly factors associated with hearing loss.

It is important to note, though, the advancements society has made to ensure that hearing impaired people are still very much part of our community. Open and closed captioning on televisions, in the workplace and in movie theatres and schools help make hearing impairment less isolating. It is also useful to know that there are a number of Australian workplaces trying to ensure they include hearing impaired employees and that the valuable contribution they make in their chosen role is recognised.

Australia has come a long way since the developments of the hearing aid and the Cochlear implant. Both devices have changed the lives of many. I touch on a great innovation by Dr Anthony Hogan at the ANU in Canberra. Dr Hogan designed a great little card with the title 'Hear Here'.

Senator Parry: Hear, hear!

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you, Senator Parry, for your additional comment. The idea is that you keep some cards in your wallet or handbag and, when you are in a public place such as a restaurant or cafe and you find the noise levels are causing discomfort, you can leave the card for management to let them know. The card has a few practical things that the venue can do to make it a little easier for people to hear, such as acoustic barriers between tables, sound absorbent hangings on the walls, soft furnishings and floor coverings, and isolating background noise in areas such as the washing and kitchen areas. Mr President, I am sure you could think of instances when you might like to use the card within this chamber. I am sure that during certain question times it might come in useful! This simple yet effective idea may well contribute to these venues considering the hearing impaired and lead to better hearing environments in such public venues.

Today's netball game was proof of how far we have come. The hearing impaired faced challenges, but their ability to adapt was remarkable and our inability to adapt was probably less remarkable—you could have seen the writing on the wall there. To foster this development, those who are not hard of hearing must adapt to ensure our society is inclusive of all. It is important that society continues to include the hearing impaired and find ways in which they can actively participate in the workplace, sport and the community.

I finish with a quote from Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind:

I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.

Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people.

Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process … Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

I wish everybody a happy Hearing Awareness Week, and I wish the hearing participants of tomorrow's touch footy game all the best. I hope they do better than we did against the hearing impaired in netball this morning.