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Heather Roy's Diary: Viosion, Hearing & Education

Friday, September 5, 2008

Vision Hearing Services And Educational Outcomes

I clearly remember the day my distraught six-year-old came home from school and told me she had been demoted from the 'Sharks' reading group to the 'Dolphins' reading group - parents and children weren't supposed to know that the 'Dolphins' were two groups behind the 'Sharks', of course, but kids aren't silly and she knew.

Going along to school to learn what had happened, my husband and I were told our daughter wasn't concentrating in class and that her reading ability had slipped in the past couple of months. Futhermore, she was well-behaved and listened when sitting next to the teacher, but became distracted and performed poorly when she sat further away.

Although we'd missed it at home, the diagnosis was evident: repeated ear infections leading to glue ear. Our perfectly able six-year-old had been punished for not being able to hear.

As such, we quickly booked a hearing test - which, it wasn't widely known - was free at the hospital - and dealt with the ear infections. Within a couple of months our daughter was back in her original reading group and moving ahead in leaps and bounds.

Sadly, this is not the case for many children - diagnosis is never made, treatment is not commenced and children's educational opportunities and potential are often lost. The same applies to eyesight when easily correctable conditions are not picked up - classic cases of falling through the cracks when a simple solution is overlooked or never recognised. It is estimated that 10-20 percent of Kiwi children have impaired vision - including those who need glasses to fully correct their vision problem.

When we look at our young criminals, there is often a myriad of complicating factors like vision and hearing problems that have contributed towards their future behaviour.

This week I met with a representative from the 'See Here' group, which recently released a report showing that New Zealand children with mild and moderate vision impairment are falling through the cracks unnecessarily.

Established by the JR McKenzie Trust to focus on the needs of Kiwi kids with less severe vision impairment, 'See Here' believes children with mild and moderate vision impairment do not get the support they need. This is due to problems with vision screening services, poor parent and educator information, and limited access to assessment and intervention services.

'See Here' appears to have strong support from parent and professional groups, and is advocating for changes in Health and Education policies to ensure that problems are detected early and that children get the help they need.

I believe that equal access to screening, assessment and intervention services for all families is a reasonable starting point and will reduce problems for these children in learning and later life. Early intervention is something we hear plenty about, but is it really happening? 'See Here' would contend that, too often, this isn't the case.

New Zealand children are currently screened for some vision problems at the ages of four, five and 11 at pre-schools and schools. But national monitoring of vision hearing screening services and technician training suddenly stopped two years ago. The screening programme is now managed by individual DHBs in, what can best be described as, an ad hoc manner. There is now no agency to train new vision hearing technicians, and no monitoring or national collection of data or evaluation of the services.

The 'See Here' report also shows a lack of fair and easy access for those with vision impairment - some eye clinics in hospitals can't cope with referrals from screening services. It recommends that the Government fund assessments for children aged under 18 by sending most referrals to private optometrists, who would be paid to provide this service. This would free up public clinics to deal with more complex clinics, and reduce waiting times for those who need to see an eye specialist. After my own experiences, I suspect that hearing (audiology) services have exactly the same problems.

ACT supports this type of collaboration between the public and private sectors and believes such Public-Private Partnerships should be encouraged. Short-sighted (excuse the pun) decision-making to just abandon the public health aspect of vision hearing services will result in more and more children slipping through the cracks and not reaching their full educational potential. The costs of such an approach further down the track are obvious for all to see.

Families need information to help them understand the limitation of vision screening conducted in schools. While many parents believe their child's vision is OK if they pass the vision screening test, the fact is that screening does not check for problems with near vision.

I'll be asking Health Minister David Cunliffe to explain why vision hearing screening no longer seems to be a priority for his Government. We must equip our children for the future - that includes identifying problems of sight and hearing. It's not expensive, time-consuming or difficult to screen children - but it IS expensive to pick up the pieces of an education lost when simple sight and hearing tests could easily have identified some of the problems early. The See Here report and summary can be seen at www.seehere.org.nz.


Lest We Forget

On September 1 1951 New Zealand, Australia and the US signed the mutual defence pact known as the ANZUS Treaty.

The treaty - signed in response to growing Soviet influence in the Asia-Pacific region - bound the signatories to cooperate on defence matters in the Pacific region.

The treaty changed significantly in 1985 when Prime Minister David Lange - in a bid to placate Left-wing elements of his Labour caucus uneasy about economic reforms - banned the entry of nuclear-powered vessels into New Zealand waters.

The response by our ANZUS partners was swift: the US suspended its treaty obligations to New Zealand - effectively removing us from the alliance - ANZUS became AUS. Annual bilateral meetings continued between the US Secretary of State and the Australian Foreign Minister from 1985, but New Zealand was excluded.

Despite the National Party opposing Mr Lange's move at the time, only ACT would now repeal the ban on nuclear-powered vessels in New Zealand waters. This policy holds back any chance of better NZ-US relations - a view confirmed by visiting US trade officials in 2006, who suggested it is now the only stumbling block to a US-NZ Free Trade Agreement.

ENDS

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