What living in Asia taught me about inequality in Australia

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Photo credit: Anna Bella Betts

 

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”

—Isaac Asimov

My education about Australia started when I lived overseas.

I grew up in Sydney and in my mid-twenties, moved to Asia. I spent eight years living in Vietnam, India, China and Cambodia. I volunteered at an orphanage, an experience that was disastrous. I worked with a big non-profit organisation. This too, was underwhelming.

And then, I went to Cambodia. I’d heard there was a huge need for people with disabilities – this turned out to be true. Despite one in 25 people needing speech pathology, there is not one single university trained speech pathologist in country.

Well-meaning volunteers from Western countries had flown in and out of the country for decades. Often they would train local people. At other times, they would perform speech pathology themselves. But still, there was no locally driven response – no university course, and virtually no understanding of the problem at government or community level.

And so, I set about changing this, by firstly starting a local non-profit organisation, and then handing over leadership to support the new team from Australia.

 

The OIC team in 2018
The OIC team in 2018

After eight years of living overseas, I returned to Australia as an outsider. Everything was different to Asia. Cars stopped at traffic lights. Pedestrians waited patiently for a benevolent green man to allow them to cross the street. There were more varieties of toothpaste at the supermarket than I could fathom.

But some things were the same as my time in Asia.

Inequality was huge, and getting worse. Amongst the most marginalised were those with disabilities. And of course, those in rural settings were far worse off than those in cities. I’d worked in Cambodia to improve access to speech pathology there, but was access in my own country much better?

I sat down to do some calculations. I wanted to answer a simple question.

If I need speech pathology, and I live rurally, how much worse off am I?

There’s a very rough way to estimate the population that requires speech pathology. In any given group of people, it’s at least 4%.

Let’s take a town like Griffith, NSW. Its population is about 30,000 people. The number needing speech pathology would be about 1,200 people. Many people who need speech pathology also need occupational therapy. Either way, the situation is dire.

Griffith has two speech pathologists, and no occupational therapists. The closest occupational therapist is over three hours away.

In Cambodia, the ratio of people in need to therapists is astounding (600,000 in need, no speech or occupational therapists). In Griffith, it’s anything but satisfactory.

1,200 people in need. Two speech pathologists. Zero occupational therapists.

According to the United Nations, Cambodia is the 143rd most developed country in the world. Australia is the 2nd. If you live in Australia, your access to health and education services is far better.

But that depends on where you live. If you live in a very remote part of the country, a therapist will fly in and out of town every six months. The situation was eerily familiar to Cambodia. One could argue that fly in fly out visits are better than nothing. But is it enough?

I had learnt a lot from starting OIC Cambodia. To solve a big ambitious problem, I had to surround myself with people better than me. And so, I started to gather a team together.

We created Umbo.

Umbo’s vision is simple: To inspire inclusive communities by connecting children with allied health professionals.

We want to create a parallel system to those fly in, fly out visits. We want clinicians to do evidence based, integrated therapy via an online platform. And we want to use technology to connect the most disadvantaged children to these clinicians.

Our Vision of Umbo - connecting children to therapy anywhere. Photo credit: Chanel Dunn
Our Vision of Umbo – connecting children to therapy anywhere. Photo credit: Chanel Dunn

As capable as our team is, it’s not enough. We can’t claim to truly understand the issues that those in rural and remote Australia experience. Nor can we design something that suits a relatively new form of therapy – online speech and occupational therapy, without the input of those who will use it.

If we’re going to solve this incredibly complex social issue, we’re going to need as many voices in unison as we can muster.

Umbo is seeking partnerships with the following:

  • Families of children who need allied health services to participate in research and prototyping
  • Clinicians interested in providing services to children in rural and remote areas
  • Developers to build a proprietary platform based on client and therapist requirements
  • Investors and other funders who wish to be part of a new model of healthcare for the 21st century

I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges marginalised populations face in Asia. With your help, I’d love to apply those lessons learnt to Australia.

 

Please feel free to get in touch via any of the forms above, or via email: wehATumboDOTcomDOTau.

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