Dr Anne Lowell
1990 Menzies Scholar in the Allied Health Sciences
After graduating as a Speech Pathologist in 1980 I worked in Victoria, the Northern Territory and South Australia for ten years. I became increasingly interested in the developmental and educational effects of conductive hearing loss due to otitis media (middle ear infections) particularly for Indigenous Australian children - a group with an extremely high prevalence of otitis media (as high as 100% in some communities).
As employment opportunities in that area were limited but research funding relatively abundant at the time I began a PhD in 1990 and in that year I was awarded the Menzies Scholarship in Allied Health. My field work was conducted in a remote island community off the coast of Arnhemland - quite a contrast to the environment most Menzies scholars experience! The findings of this study identified many positive features of communicative interaction within this community which supported children with hearing loss and raised many questions about cultural differences in language socialisation.
This led to another study looking at communication at home to better understand why some children appeared less disadvantaged by their hearing loss than we, as outsiders, might assume. The assumptions many of us hold about communication and socialisation were repeatedly challenged in these studies and led to other work which would enable the experts - Aboriginal people themselves - greater participation in identifying and addressing their children's needs.
Subsequent projects moved away from a specific communication focus but Aboriginal participation remained a crucial feature with increasing the opportunity for Aboriginal control over both research and practice as the central objective in every project. I have been very lucky to have had many Aboriginal co-workers who were all exceptionally patient - and persistent - teachers. They helped me to begin to understand how deeply ethnocentric our (Western) views of communication - and most other aspects of life - are. As a result, so much Indigenous knowledge and practice is excluded from our view. I became increasingly aware of the importance of good collaborative practice and an understanding of power and how to let it go - for those of us socialised in Western academic and professional cultures this is not an easy task and I'm still struggling with the challenge.
My most recent work has moved back to communication again - to a study of intercultural communication between health staff and their Aboriginal clients. We found extensive miscommunication in encounters between health staff and renal patients from remote communities which, inevitably, has serious consequences for the quality of care. Staff and clients are highly motivated to work together to address these problems and supporting this process is my current priority.