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One of Australia’s oldest charities, NextSense, has launched a pilot program to prevent hearing loss among First Nations children and end the lifelong challenges it creates.

NextSense (formerly known as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children) is targeting regional NSW and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory after screening in 2020 found only 13% of children had acceptable hearing levels.

The repercussions stretch far wider than physical wellbeing.

Poor ear and hearing health is associated with lower levels of educational participation, as well as speech development, which can lead to a range of adult social problems including higher levels of unemployment and even incarceration.

The pilot program aims to change that by partnering with Indigenous health care workers, Aboriginal Education Officers, and an Aboriginal Health Corporation to ensure that First Nations communities are leading the change, says Kim Ter-Horst, Audiologist, NextSense.

“To ensure our work has a sustainable impact, we listen to the community and always ask what they think they need and how we can help rather than assuming we know what they need without consulting them,” she says.

“This varies enormously from community to community and even individual schools within a geographically close community will have different priorities and needs. Our experience tells us that for outreach to be successful, there needs to be a local champion who promotes the aims of the program within the community and fires up the community with an eagerness to take advantage of the service and follow through on the outcomes.”

Early signs of success with schools and local communities leading change

The program is being delivered through 16 preschools and schools to ensure maximum engagement, with audiologists planning to see almost 700 First Nations children in the coming year. There are early signs the approach is working with the initial 13% hearing pass rate in 2020 rising to 53% by 2023 after audiologists identified and addressed ear disease and hearing loss early, as well as improving education.

Genelle Cook, Audiologist, NextSense, says a recent highlight was being invited to present at an expo about girls’ health as part of Women’s Health Week.

“A large group of primary and high school aged girls gathered to learn more about a wide array of health and wellbeing topics. We were impressed that so many of the girls understood the importance of keeping their ears healthy. When girls leave school with an understanding of the importance of ear health, it bodes well for the next generation.

“It is crucial to provide meaningful and timely information to the parents and teachers of the children who need support. Information needs to be presented in a way that the various people responsible for a child’s welfare can easily understand and act on.”

NextSense’s evolution brings services nationwide

The recent push into regional NSW and NT is a sign of NextSense’s recent growth from its beginnings in 1860 when it opened Australia’s first school for deaf children in Sydney. It now has 20 centres across Australia, including a centre in Toowoomba, Queensland and three centres and a kindergarten in Victoria. It also pioneered remote service delivery to children with hearing and vision loss and continues to work with clients across the country via teleppractice. NextSense also runs Australia’s largest and most comprehensive cochlear implant program for children and adults.

“The services that we deliver have expanded and we have become a more full-service organisation,” Arani Duggan, NextSense, Fundraising and Philanthropy Director, says.

“For example, we often first see children as infants, and they go on to use our early intervention services and receive cochlear implants through our program. They may go on to attend our preschools or school or be supported in a mainstream school through our school support program. It's more about a lifetime of support which can include, but certainly isn’t limited to, education.”

Later this year, NextSense will move into a new centre for innovation on the Macquarie University campus in northern Sydney, which will provide a new platform to harness the latest technologies and approaches in hearing and vision services.

Next Sense is supported by trusts managed by Equity Trustees.

To support NextSense’s program to empower First Nation communities to improve ear and hearing health please contact Andrea Phillips, Trusts and Foundations Manager: