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Inmates prove hearing problems

Inmates prove hearing problems

If you can’t hear properly, communication is inevitably confused. New research indicates that very large numbers of Indigenous prisoners in Australia may not be able to properly hear what police officers and other authority figures say to them.

Inmates prove hearing problems

The 2010 Senate Inquiry – Hear Us: Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia – said 90% of Darwin Correctional Centre’s Indigenous inmates had hearing loss and/or ear disease.

Subsequently, ear test results from the West Australian metropolitan women’s jail, Bandyup, have backed up the extent of the problems. WA Corrective Services commissioned the tests after concerns about the large number of women who needed treatment.

The results showed almost half of Indigenous imprisoned women have a hearing loss. Of the 104 Indigenous women tested:

  • 45 required referral to a GP,
  • 13 had burst eardrums,
  • seven had visibly scarred eardrums, and
  • four had ears that were discharging pus (most likely from chronic suppurative otitis media).  

Not being able to hear has a negative impact on a person’s ability to navigate safely through our troubled justice system, in addition to the barriers poor communications pose to schooling and getting/keeping a job. The problem is obvious for people who live with it, but completely unknown for those who don’t. 

Awareness of ear disease has rocketed in the last year thanks to the efforts of the Senate inquiry. The test results debunk the age-old belief that otitis media (‘Glue Ear’) is solely a minor ailment, limited to childhood, that occurred in isolated regions.

The test results show ear disease is also a serious problem for Indigenous people in the metropolitan area of Perth (and likely to be the same in other Australian capital cities), and the effects of the disease on ears and hearing can last a lifetime.

Previous research has shown the disease is very prevalent in regional and remote areas and 80%-90% of Indigenous children aged 1-4 years suffer from Otitis Media (OM). These rates are among the worst in the world.  A lot of those kids will end up with the more serious and exceedingly painful, Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media(CSOM), recurring indefinitely, which causes lifelong auditory processing impairment and ear defects. 

The Senate report said: “The Menzies School of Health Research recently reported that in a recent survey of 29 communities throughout the Northern Territory, 25% of young Aboriginal children had either chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) or acute otitis media with perforation; 31% had bilateral otitis media with effusion; and only 7% of children had bilaterally normal middle ears.”

The difficulties of growing up with hearing loss are only just beginning to be addressed, but the implications for a child’s psychological and emotional growth, of growing up with everyday chronic pain, seems to be relatively unchartered territory.  

In the regions rife with OM, the rates decrease as kids get older (around 54% of school-aged kids in NT). However, the brain’s auditory link develops at around the age of 2-3 years, creating a battle with impaired auditory processing that effectively lasts a lifetime. Accurate information about auditory processing is still not very widely known and this means the funding, services and support are still limited.

One in ten non-Indigenous female inmates tested had a hearing loss/ear disease, as well. Poor social (plus justice, education, employment, and anything else hinging on communications skills) outcomes are also reflected in the high rates of non-Indigenous inmates with hearing loss, who were also disproportionately represented among the prison test group, compared to the number of women with ear disease on the other side of the fence.

The 2010 Senate Hearing Inquiry recommended that all Australian inmates have their ears examined and their hearing tested and that those found to have a loss should then have the circumstances surrounding their incarceration, such as their offences and their court hearings, investigated by the state Ombudsman to screen for miscarriages of justice.

The Senate identified that there are approximately four (4) million Australians with a hearing loss. So hearing problems affect the entire community…but Indigenous Australians are severely affected, virtually from birth, which reduces their ability to learn and so to have a chance of living ‘normally’.

Senate inquiry details:

Greens media release on WA research:


  1. Hi Dr Howard, I just want to say how liberating your psych research in relation to kids with CSOM was. It seems to be some of the most progressive research on the social(education, justice, employment etc) impacts of hearing impairment and ear disease in Australia.

    However, the research for the medical side of things is still quite dated in some of the submissions to the hearing health inquiry, although I know that there are a lot of professionals trying really hard to get funding to address these widespread problems.

    The pain that comes from having ear disease doesn’t go away, it recurs with every cold, wisdom teeth coming through, sore throats – allergies etc., even as adults.

    Another of the medical myths widely peddled that really gives me the pip, is that the illness comes from being poor or grubby – that’s terrible discrimination. Smoking and allergies are absolutely deadly for causing more bouts, though.

    So that sort of myth devalues patients and is disproven rapidly by the fact the condition is intergenerational, whilst environmental factors change over the same timeframe.

    People who’ve been hearing impaired in childhood don’t communicate well about pain – they don’t recognize it a lot, just like they don’t recognize they have a hearing loss, coz they don’t know any different. It takes ages for kids to recognize a bout of Glue ear and the pain is evident in their behaviour weeks before they can verbalize that to anyone.

    In 10 – 15 minutes appointments, doctors can’t derive as much as one can from living with people with this condition, but sometimes they need to listen more and for longer to their patients.

    Bess, Perth
  2. Great article but needs some clarification on Indigenous kids growing up in chronic pain from middle er disease. Many instances of middle ear disease are asymptomatic see following from 8.26 from senate report. In some cases ear infections in Indigenous children go unreported and untreated, leading to damaged hearing.

    The committee heard evidence that whereas many children experience pain associated with ear infections (thereby prompting medical examination of their ears), recent studies found this was not always the case among Indigenous children. Whilst the reason for this is not known, there was some speculation that early onset of otitis media may be a factor:

    …a normal eardrum is like a very thin sheet of glass and you can see through it, with a lot of nerve fibres running through it. When the eardrum bulges we think that is what causes the pain. Because when you examine these children they have red bulging drums.

    Interestingly, we know that in non-Aboriginal children the pain usually only lasts six to 12 hours, and the bulging does not resolve in that time, so it seems that it is the stretching of the nerves that is painful. It is the initial stretching that causes the pain. We think that in Aboriginal children, who have already had the fluid there for a long time, the drum is much thicker and the nerves just cannot be stretched as much.

    damien howard
  3. Great article! There should be a lot more articles like this to bring public awareness to the pandemic situation of middle ear disease amongst our Aboriginal folk.

    As the one who conducted these tests, I can only emphasise here the essential need of ear health checks on all inmates (especially Aboriginal) upon entry into any correctional institution throughout Australia. Even better – a standard hearing test on the day of arrest, before any legal proceedings occur. Amazing the thought of being able to hear and understand your counsel – the outcomes could have a radical turn around.

    Keep up the good work.

    Anne O'Leary

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