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Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Parliamentary Speech on Cochlear Implants

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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Last week I had the privilege of witnessing one of the most impressive transformations that modern medical science can achieve. The member for Bradfield approached me some months ago about the issue of hearing screening for newborn infants and in our discussions, in order to understand the issue and how we could improve the service across Australia, I asked whether he could arrange for me to have a look at an operation where cochlear implants were put into a little child.

So I attended the Prince of Wales hospital where Dr Phillip Change performed the implantation of a cochlear implant on a four-month-old girl who was profoundly deaf. It was with the consent of the parents and I acknowledge the role of the member for Bradfield in arranging this.

The cochlear implant is designed to allow people with profound deafness to hear sounds and communicate with the hearing world. Four months is the earliest that one can be fitted safely but in terms of giving the child the benefit of hearing, the earlier the better.

I then visited the Shepherd Centre in Darlington where children have been fitted with the cochlear implants are able to benefit from a four year program to help them learn to speak and understand. They get the services of speech pathologists and auditory professionals. The idea is that when these children start school they are as well-equipped to learn and reach their potential as children born with the ability to hear.

To meet a four-year-old child at the Shepherd Centre, as I did, who was born profoundly deaf yet is now able to speak and identify syllables and words, was a beautiful experience. I watched a video of a young child exposed to noise for the first time, and that was also incredible. When the child’s cochlear implant was switched on there were the tears of parents and the reaction, perhaps anger, of a child hearing noise for the first time. But then comes the understanding that the child will be able to hear. It was a very powerful experience.

150,000 people, both children and adults, have had cochlear implants since its invention, and as the technology improves, the implants are coming closer to the goal of replicating the sounds heard by the functioning human ear. The cochlear implant is the result of research in several different countries, but Australia has played a major and proud role in its development. Professor Graham Clark of the University of Melbourne was the creator and developer of the world’s first multi-channel implant and is considered by many the father of the cochlear implant.

The issue which I pursue as a result of this visit is the possibility of screening newborn infants across Australia for deafness. Some states do it 100 per cent; other states do not yet do it to 100 per cent. I do believe this is an issue worth further investigation and support.

I would like to record my particular appreciation of the work of Dr Phillip Chang, who was the surgeon, and his very capable theatre staff including Harry Koumoukelis, who was the anaesthetist. I would also like to record my appreciation of the work done by Michael Shepherd, the Chairman of the Shepherd Centre; Aleisha Davis, the Manager of Clinical Programs, and Anthea Green the CEO. I also acknowledge the work done by Dr Michael Brydon, Dr Maree Doble, the Hon. Brendan Nelson and the Hon Craig Knowles. My visit was a great experience.