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“It Celebrates Our Uniqueness”: Audiologist Speaks About NAIDOC Week

Jul 5, 2024

A recent audiology graduate sits down with Audiology Australia (AudA) to discuss the importance of NAIDOC Week and the need for systematic change to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ear health across Australia.

It’s 7am in Perth and Luke Austin has just finished scooting into his workplace for his Thursday interview with us on Microsoft Teams. It’s the only time in the week with a gap in his schedule and the 33-year-old betrays no hint of tiredness as he calmly begins to speak.

“I thought I’d be doe-eyed and tired,” Luke says. “But I had faith!”

Six months out from university, Luke, a Yuat Nyungar man, has already involved himself in numerous research and outreach programs aimed at improving the hearing health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. So, the question of whether he would be open to a discussion with AudA about NAIDOC Week and to share his experiences was never answered with “why” but “when”.

“I’ve always loved the idea of highlighting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and achievements for everyone to see,” says Luke.

“It’s nice to see those celebrations becoming normalised during NAIDOC Week.”

2024 NAIDOC Week Poster

NAIDOC Week celebrates the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians like Luke. Pictured: the 2024 NAIDOC Week poster.

As Luke suggests, in a world that at times appears dark and divisive, NAIDOC Week shines as a bright flame of unity. Created to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Indigenous peoples across the country, the week is now popularised everywhere from the AFL field to the local paper with lift-outs celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“I think the theme for this year, ‘Keep the fire burning! Blak, loud and proud’, celebrates our uniqueness, that we’re the longest continuing living civilisation in the world,” Luke says.

Campaigning for positive changes to the healthcare system

While Luke’s own tie to Australia stems back thousands of years on his mother’s side across WA’s coastal Wheatbelt region, his upbringing was spent a few hundred kilometres north in Yamatji country, in the famously windy city of Geraldton.

After spending his post-school years “floating around” various healthcare careers, including starting a medicine degree and working for the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service (GRAMS), a friend suggested to Luke that he should pursue a career in audiology.

Like many others, Luke saw the value in becoming an audiologist and never looked back from his decision to study a Master of Clinical Audiology at The University of Western Australia.

“It just made sense. I was essentially conducting a behavioural ear test or putting an otoscope into the ear of every kid that walked into our clinic,” says Luke.

“I’ve always wanted to help others and I realised audiology could be the perfect vessel to not only help people, but to really engage with them and hear their stories. I also liked the idea of learning to use different technologies and diagnostic tools.”

Years later and Luke has already built an impressive resume. Among his many accolades, the early career audiologist worked on a research project with the Telethon Kids Institute aimed at accelerating the treatment of Indigenous children with Otitis Media during his final year of study. Shortly after, through the industry connections he made at the institute, Luke began working as a community-based investigator for National Acoustic Laboratories’ (NAL’s) 5000 PLUMs project, which aims to improve the effectiveness of PLUM questionnaires as predictors of young Indigenous children’s future hearing health.

“The Telethon Kids Institute project worked really well. In some areas of Australia, especially in rural WA, it can take years for children to get grommets after they’re diagnosed with Otitis Media. This was shortening the time it was taking to receive treatment quite substantially,” says Luke.

“That opened a path for me to the 5000 PLUMs project, where I’m providing the WA perspective through both a cultural lens and my background in audiology and healthcare.”

Audiologist giving an Aboriginal child a hearing test. Mother sits behind child.

Luke’s role in the 5000 PLUMs project will help to improve the accuracy of diagnostic questionnaires as predictors of a young Indigenous child’s future hearing health. Picture: Audiology Australia.

Luke’s positive experience with the project encouraged him to pursue his post-university Audiology Australia clinical internship with Hearing Australia, the parent organisation of NAL, where he has worked since graduation in Perth’s northern suburbs.

“The internship is cementing a lot of skills I learned a uni, like how to counsel clients and motivate them to make changes, the screening process and how to identify red flags that need investigation,” says Luke.

“We need to copy the optometry model”

Luke first came to the attention of Audiology Australia last year when he was successfully awarded a Barbara Skurr Scholarship, named in honour of one of Audiology Australia’s founding parents, which included a complimentary ticket to the Audiology Australia 2023 Conference.

In his submission, which asked for what applicants saw as the future of audiology, Luke expressed his desire to see a government-supported model for audiology similar to optometry, where all Australians can claim a free Medicare-subsidised eye test.

By comparison, Australians can only claim a Medicare rebate for a paid hearing assessment after being referred to an audiologist by a medical practitioner, and the government-led Hearing Services Program only covers Australians aged 0-26 or 65 and older for a hearing test.

“We need to help those people in the middle. With the cost of living as bad as it is and with hearing loss being very slow to detect, it needs to be made a priority,” says Luke.

“I think we could do a very basic, free hearing screening for people of all ages to get a baseline understanding of their hearing health before offering further, paid services.”

Looking ahead to his own future, Luke says he is excited to take his audiology skills to the community as a fully licensed audiologist, an experience he has already begun to have with outreach opportunities to Geraldton and up north to regional Broome.

“I love the internship, but the idea of what comes afterwards: doing site visits around Perth, travelling to communities and providing services in areas that might not have an audiologist…” says Luke.

“That’s the kind of stuff I’m excited for.”

NAIDOC Week runs every year during the first week of July (Sunday to Sunday). This year NAIDOC Week is being celebrated from 7-14 July. See which events you could take part in on the NAIDOC Week website.

AudA is committed to the journey of reconciliation and in calling on government to help close the gap on hearing health and expand the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce. Read more on AudA’s reconciliation journey page.

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