University of Newcastle partnering to Close the Gap

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

We’ve all heard about ‘closing the gap’, but what does this really mean?

Imagine if your pre-school child was having communication problems, they are having trouble speaking and get frustrated when you don’t understand what they are trying to say. As a concerned parent, you take them to a doctor who advises they need speech therapy and hearing interventions. You immediately call up to book in an appointment, but are told there is a 12-month waiting list to see a speech therapist and that is only for the initial appointment! While you wait, your child’s development falls further and further behind the other children and you can see that this is going to impact their future schooling and prospects.

This is the reality for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who live in rural Australia. Only 4.5% of Speech Pathology practitioners provide services to rural communities, with a handful of these including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Early intervention for preschool aged children is key to successful outcomes, however the current provision of professional services in rural settings is unable to meet demand.

The University of Newcastle has partnered with Gunawirra, a not-for-profit organisation which works to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers and children, Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai Preschools in Kempsey, which currently enrol 118 Aboriginal children aged 3 to 6 years old and philanthropic supporters, the Vonwiller Foundation, to establish a unique pilot program that will see final year Speech Pathology students help to close the gap where the demand for services is greater than current availability.

The program was launched with a ceremony last week at Dalaigur pre-school in Kempsey, and has the first two students already in place, working with the children. The program was named by local Aboriginal elders and is called the Guyati, Garraka wa Witing Speech Pathology project which means Talk, Mouth and Lips in the Dunghutti language.

Key representatives from all parties to the project were in attendance, including donors, Chris and Julie Vonwiller, University staff, the Mayor of Kempsey, the CEO and Chairperson of Gunawirra, Director and Board Members from Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai Preschools, local Aboriginal elders and pre-school children.

The launch was quite emotional with many tears from staff and Board members of the Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai preschools, who were overwhelmed that the children were finally going to get the hands-on support they need to thrive. The partners are optimistic that the program will be able to be broadened to include other health areas where there are professional shortages (such as Social Workers) and expanded to include other rural pre-schools where children are desperately in need of Speech Therapy services.

If you would like to support this program and help to close the gap, please contact Leanne Innes at the University of Newcastle on 02 4921 5394.

Read more in The Gift magazine

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.