Retardation and the Australian Aborigine
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Retardation and the Australian AboriginePublished online: 22 Jan 2014.
To cite this article: (1978) Retardation and the Australian Aborigine, Australian Journal of Mental Retardation, 5:3, 108-109
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/13668257809010179
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Page 108 - Australian Journal of Mental Retardation
EDITORIAL RETARDATION AND THE AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINE
It may be true that everything that has been written anywhere has been written somewhere else and therefore this is a good enough reason for not writing anything more. There is an even more poignant reason for writing anything at all and that IS because whatever is being exposed in the process of writing may in the end do more harm than good. Any media form has a responsibility towards those about whom it is dealing, and this is the ultimate question when one attempts to say something about the Australian Aboriginal. What is there to say, and why should one talk about Aborigines as though they are any different to anyone else. Why highlight Aborigines. and finally i f one wants to highlight them, be sure that no harm is done in the process of exposure. At a recent conference on special education in Darwin Dr. Stephen Harris stated that we simply ask too many questions of Aborigines.
In a way these are arguments only too familiar to those who work with the mentally re- tarded because i t has been the highlighting of the problems of the retarded that (according to some people) has produced their problems. Labelling is the name of the game and the labelling controversy is closely tied up with the segregation controversy. On top of all this is man's superstitious belief that labelling in itself is the starting point for many self-fulfilling pro- phecies. It is a double bind situation.
The Australian Aboriginal situation (let us not say problem) is now polarised. It was not so many years ago (about 30) that there was no argument at al l but now the publ ic is sensitised; now many white people want and have learned to get along with Aborigines almost better than they can with other white people. Now the whole Western counter culture, and the anti-technological movement has fallen into the lap of Westerners who want- ed to get out and who wanted to see life as it is really meant to be. The pure unadulterated Aboriginal life just has to be regarded as something worthy of sociological consideration for no other reason than it has survived longer than any other. A recent archeological find in Australia reckons its longevity to be double what was previously thought and that Aborigines have been here for at least 100,000 years. How can we possibly avoid the relevance of such durable social structures when nearly everyone is postulating the exit of a Judaeo Christian one that has only been here for a cou- ple of thousand years.
At the other pole to this not-so-well publicised aspect of Aboriginal-European em- pathy and co-operation are the far better rnedia-exposed issues of land rights, uranium digging and finally the granting of State-hood to the state which has more Aborigines than whites. These problems have to be solved, but
to solve them without upsetting the balance of relationships between white and black may be- impossible. Why, when white Australians have finally become sensitive to the needs of Aborigines, does it all have to be upset because technology has to be placated. Is technology (uranium and the nuclear age) white man's burden, in the same way as, say, the intense tribal taboos of the Aborigines are his? Do our respective sociological orders merely reflect the burdens we have wrought about us, and will they in the end determine who is to win and who to lose.
All of the foregoing may seem to have little to do with Aborigines and mental retardation but the retarded in any society always reflect to some degree the values within it. It is not possi- ble to understand retardation in Aborigines without trying to grapple with the sociological problems of an otherwise alien culture.
There would be many white people who would consider the problem of retardation among Aborigines to be a nonevent. For them the fact that the records for Aboriginal health and education are so appallingly bad is the only issue. Their priority is for better health and bet- ter education for non-retarded Aborigines and there is no problem about retarded Aborigines until these obstacles have been overcome. In a sense they are right. The Federal government's report into alcoholism among Aborigines is hardly in the latter's favour, though one won- ders most of the time i f i t is in ours. If David Smith's foetal alcohol syndrome is at all valid God knows what this means for both white and black Australians.
For the Aboriginal child the biggest physical anchors prohibiting learning are probably just chronic ill health from a variety of conditions (sores, osteomyelitis, bronchitis, worms and malnutrition). In the hospital school in the pre- cincts of the Darwin hospital at any one time 90% of the pupils are Aboriginal. Superim- posed upon all this a phenomonal amount of sensory deprivation in the form of hearing loss and sight impairment. "Glue" ear, as it is called, is rampant and overall the Aboriginal child is thousands of decibels short compared to his white counterpart. 17% of Aboriginal children under 11 years having hearing dif- ficulties need attention. (Just why "glue" ear is such a problem has not been elucidated, though research proceeds in this area - it is a challenge and a critical issue). As regards vis- ual impairment, one survey in the Northern Ter- ritory showed that out of 6040 people 2200 had trachoma follicles and therefore a potential for sight impairment.
Despite these physical anchors mitigating against learning these are not really the pro- blems of the truly retarded Aboriginal child. The Aboriginal child afflicted by these condi- tions is not within his own society marked down as being that different. His personality is intact, and as he does not either have to go to school or to succeed in the way expected of the
Auslraliar: Journal 01 btcnlal Retardallon - Page 109 What from our Western point of view will be
critical in the end will not be whether one child succeeds more than another but that all children, retarded or non-retarded. are given rights to develop. Psycho-social deprivation is all important and is represented on the one hand by the almost insoluble problems of child battering in Western society and probably by psycho-social deprivation among Aborigines. Most of us cannot conceive that proper child care can take place in a home where drunken- ness is too frequent and the evidence seems to support a conclusion that alcoholism has un- dermined the very pith of Aboriginal society in such a way that many Aboriginal parents do not relate to their children in the way we see as ap- propriate.
It is perhaps for one of these sorts of reasons that the Wolfson Centre -trained-paediatrician Anne Urban, working in a Community Health Centre in Alice Springs has initiated what can best be described as some sort of play therapy techniques with families of children with de- velopmental problems. After years of orthodox paediatrics (mainly with children after 4 years of age) she had to conclude that early interven- tion offered the only choice. She had to go out and learn what i t was that was defined as "de- velopment" for the Aboriginal child, and this took an entirely different form to that for the European; furthermore, development was not something that could (Gessell-like) ever be separated from the dignity and inherent worth of social training. European man has a lot to learn. Incidentally. i f anyone is wondering whether Aborigines have different inbuilt. con- ceptual abilities, Anne Urban's conclusions are decidedly to the contrary. In her work she has concluded that nearly all differences are culturally determined.
European teenager, his place in the Social structure is not threatened. On the other hand i f he is to succeed in a non-Aboriginal culture his problems will be great. This has been most recently highlighted in the Australian Studies in School Performance Report in a survey con- ducted by Eourke and Parkin. They showed that for Northern Territory Aborigines, i.e. those least in contact with white urban society:
Many Aborigines of school age do-not un- derstand English sufficiently well to cope with classroom behaviour. (Only recently have moves been made to teach in an Aboriginal language. McGrath 1975. Tyron
Regular school attendance is generally less pronounced than in Australians overall. Aboriginal pupils more often exhibit ranges of behaviour at the extreme ends of a hypoactivity-hyperact ivity continuum. Hearing defects are common, while hearing aids are few. Hearing defects can be up to ten times as common as among Australians generally. Shyness and timidity in classroom situations are commoner amona Aboriclinal pupils.
1) By ordinary Australian standards the number of remedial teachers necessary to improve the situation would be so high as to inake such a priority questionable. so long as aims of Aboriginal educations are not re.evaluated. There can be no question however that the
seriously handicapped child is any less labelled among Aborigines than among his white coun- terparts and there are suggestions that indeed he may be more so. Dr. Stephen Harris has so nicely put it: "Aborigines are as aware of in- dividual differences as anyone else." In a sense this is not unnatural for a people who live "close to the earth" and who in many cases still are nomadic. How could a spastic ch i ld possibly get about; how could a hypotonic chi ld get about? Just as our technological society feeds on "brain drains" Aboriginal society no less has had to do the same. Just as unofficial infanticide is practised among our newborn, so too Aborigines have had to do the same. Whether one society or the other has had to resort to it more than the other is beside the point. We don't in fact know even whether full-blooded Aborigines ever even suffer from Down's syndrome, but certainly other forms of re ta rda t i on exist and w i t h degrees of \Yesternisation from health services, mission stations. etc. retarded Aboriginal children are, SO to speak, coming out of the woodwork.
REFERENCES BOURKE, S. F. and PARKIN, 6. (1977), Australian
Studies in School Performance, Volume Ill. Australian Government Publishing Service.
McGRATH, 6. (1975). The Northern Territory Bilingual Problem, Education News, 15, 2 and 3. 51-53.
TRYON, D. T. (1975). Bilingual Education ,in the Northern Territory, Education News, 15, 2and 3,
Final Report House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. Alcohol Problems and Aboriginals. Australian Government Publicity Service 1977.
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