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Full Interview: AudA Audiologist Rebecca Allnutt on World Hearing Day

Mar 1, 2024

This World Hearing Day (WHD) 2024, we were excited to interview Rebecca Allnutt, Senior Audiologist and Manager Hearing Health Services Central Australia at the Department of Health NT Government. 

Rebecca is a descendant of the Dalrymple Tribe of the Plangermaireener Nation in Tasmania, and now lives in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. She has contributed much of her career to improving the ear and hearing health status of Indigenous people in Central Australia.

Bec Allnutt

Here is our full interview:

What does this year’s WHD theme ‘Changing Mindsets: Let’s make ear and hearing care a reality for all mean to you?

Destigmatising hearing loss. I still see clients who feel shame when they are identified with a hearing loss or who have a child identified with a hearing loss. That whole idea of hearing loss being associated with being “dumb” or “not all there” or shameful needs to be stamped out. In some of the Indigenous communities I visit they use the term “ruma ruma” meaning mad one, when quite often the person only has a hearing loss. If we can change the mindset and ideas that having a hearing loss isn’t shameful or bad, then I think more people would be open to having their hearing loss managed either medically/surgically or with rehabilitation.

According to the WHO 80% of ear and hearing care needs remain unmet globally. In Australia this is particularly true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those living in regional and remote communities. What do you see as some of the barriers to access to hearing care?

Families are generally involved with multiple visiting services including hearing and can be a bit overwhelmed with seeing different people sometimes on a weekly basis. Hearing loss is the hidden disability and often parents also have a hearing loss and have coped most of their life using other communication strategies, which are often used by their children. I also think as mentioned about the stigma of having a hearing loss is a barrier to accessing services.

What are the real costs and consequences of not meeting these needs?

As we know quite often with our Indigenous children, hearing loss due to middle ear disease starts a lot earlier than our non-indigenous children (quite often soon after birth) and they are more likely to have on-going ear problems throughout their early years. This often leads to delayed speech and language especially when English is not their primary language, behaviour issues and learning problems. The long term effects may affect the persons self-esteem and their place in community. With poor education outcomes this will also affect their ability to find employment.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions and stigmas affecting Australia’s mindset about hearing as health priority for action?

Good question. I really have no idea why hearing loss doesn’t seem to sit at high levels with other disabilities such as vision impairment or blindness. Hearing loss has just a much impact on a person as any other disability and deserves to be recognised as just as important by all sectors in the community. If we had some more key role models in the public arena this may make a difference. I certainly think Dr Kelvin Kong, who is the first Indigenous ENT Specialist and a great advocate for ear and hearing services for Indigenous Australians, has created a lot of awareness in this area.

Hearing health intersects with many other areas of health but is still not well understood by other health providers and professionals. What do you think is impacting this understanding and how can we begin to change the health conversation around hearing and hearing loss?

I think GP’s and other doctors have so many other things to think about that hearing loss is often the last thing they think about. I would love to see some public awareness around getting regular ear and hearing checks once you reach a certain age (like cancer screening) and even hearing checks prior to children starting school. We have a pre-school her in Alice Springs who advise parents to have the child’s hearing checked when they are completing the enrolment forms. This is a great idea and ensures early intervention can occur if a hearing loss is picked up. If we could ensure professional development sessions for the doctors and other allied health professionals could be claimed as part of their professional development program, then I think we would get more uptake from these professionals.

What information or engagement is needed to change public perception and understanding of hearing health and hearing loss?

A national health awareness program would be ideal. Preferably done by a government body where there are no conflicts of interest and looking at all ages.

What are the biggest or most frequent misconceptions you have encountered?

That hearing aids will fix the problems of a hearing loss. There is so much more involved than just putting a hearing aid on a person, making a few adjustments on the computer and sending them on their way. There is very little rehabilitation done these days including counselling for both the person and the family. I think this is because there is not much of a financial benefit for businesses to provide this service and quite often I don’t think the professional has the confidence in providing counselling services. There needs to be more person centred care in the hearing health industry.

What actions does Australia need to take to improve equitable access to hearing ear and hearing healthcare for all?

Advocating that all persons no matter what nationality or age should be eligible for fully subsidised hearing services. It is sad that people who have worked all their lives and are not eligible or a government pension, then have to pay for hearing devices and then if they have private health cover, get reimbursed a small amount and only every few years. There is also a gap for people who were eligible who once they reach a certain age are expected then to suddenly find the funds to purchase devices.

Looking into the future what changes do you hope to see?

Equality for hearing health services around Australia; stigmatisation of hearing loss non-existent; more Indigenous people in the ear and hearing health area.

Any famous last words of wisdom?

Ear and hearing organisations around Australia need to work together more to improve the lives of people with hearing loss. As Helen Keller said “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”.

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