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An unexpected education

News story

For the past two years, in the remote Pilbara Martu communities of Punmu and Jigalong, there has been a quiet revolution in the way early intervention is being delivered to Indigenous children with developmental challenges and delays.

Jiji students
L-R Elizabeth Sydney-Smith, speech pathology student, Jillian Briggs, occupational therapy student, Amy Le Cras, occupational therapy student and Euphemia White, speech therapy student, all participated in the Jiji program.

The Jiji program – jiji meaning young children in Martu – is the result of a partnership between Curtin University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, led by Professor Lorna Rosenwax, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, the Western Deserts Land Aboriginal Corporation and leaders from the Martu communities. The program aims to deliver a culturally appropriate model of allied health services for developmentally vulnerable children.

Jiji, which was established in 2016, offers final year occupational therapy and speech pathology students the unique opportunity to be embedded in remote communities, and to live and work directly with Indigenous people to deliver therapy services. Students, who are supported and mentored by program supervisors, work with the children, their families, teachers and principals in an integrated approach to child development.

Professor Rosenwax said Jiji is the first program of its kind in Western Australia.

“The Jiji program provides a unique opportunity for Curtin University to be involved in a community development program and school-based health initiative in remote Western Australia,” said Professor Rosenwax.

“The embedded nature of the program and the continuity of supervision staff are seen as significant strengths, and our students experience immense personal and professional growth over the course of their cultural immersion experience.”

For the past two years, the Jiji program has been funded by the Feilman Foundation, in partnership with the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation, Newcrest Mining, BHP-Billiton and Mosman Park Rotary.

Ways of seeing

Earlier this year, Master of Occupational Therapy student, Jillian Briggs, flew north to Punmu, one of the most remote towns in Australia, to participate in the Jiji program. Jillian, from a multi-generational farming family, with little firsthand experience working with Aboriginal people, hoped her placement would help to deepen her understanding of Indigenous culture, and broaden her perspective as an occupational therapist. She was to find herself challenged on a daily basis.

“My family for several generations were farmers and station managers throughout rural Western Australia, so I grew up hearing about rural Australia through the eyes of farmers, who talked about their history in Australia, but rarely about the history of Aboriginal people in Australia. I was interested in being immersed in this area outside of farms, on the land in which the Martu people originate from,” she said.

“We embarked on a two to three hour flight from Perth to Telfer, a Newcrest mining company in the Pilbara. From there, we drove along unsealed roads of varying quality for about three hours. In that time we drove through the remarkable desert landscape along Lake Dora, a large salt lake, before driving over a dune that revealed the town site of Punmu. The nearest town, Marble Bar, was a six hour drive away.”

Indigenous children playing with bikes

Jiji means ‘young children’ in Martu.

The students’ first goal – to build respectful relationships with members of the Martu community in Punmu – was perhaps the most difficult to achieve. A spotty history of allied health, and other services, moving in and out of the community, multiple languages, with English typically a fourth or fifth tongue, and cultural differences in ways of communicating, meant there were many challenges for the students and community members to navigate before they could begin to consider therapy for the children.

“We were the first block of 2017, so an important part of our time in the community was building rapport and trust. To be culturally sensitive, this component took time but was an integral part of being able to work alongside the community,” said Jillian.

“Building rapport looked very different in Punmu than it would in Perth. Walks around community, chats in the general store, and throwing a ball around on the oval were just as important as our knowledge and expertise in therapy sessions.”

Jillian learned to appreciate the importance of silence.

Jillian learned to appreciate the importance of silence.

As she worked with the community, Jillian discovered that the key components of social communication in her own culture – speech, body language and eye contact – are all different in Martu culture. The way she had been communicating all her life was considered off-putting in Martu communities, and she had to learn new culturally-appropriate ways to connect.

“As a fast-paced speaker, I had to learn to appreciate the importance of silence. My initial reaction if someone does not answer a question of mine, is to try and reframe the answer, or presume the individual doesn’t want to answer so move on,” Jillian said.

“In Martu culture, silence is very important in conversation and can communicate far more than words. Likewise, English is at least a second language, if not a fourth or fifth, so further time has to be factored in to translating sentences. This meant I had to be comfortable with silence and remind myself to allow time.

“I also come from a culture where eye contact is encouraged and considered courteous. When I was placed into a culture where eye contact is considered generally quite invasive, it became clear that it would take time and practice before I became comfortable with holding a conversation with a downcast glance, or while facing the same direction as the other person. It’s a hard habit to break!”

Empowering change

White people who come here, they’re invaders. Not you. You’re between health  and education. We’ve got kids that need you here because they can’t learn. (Martu community leader, the Jiji program’s 2016 Annual Report.)

The factors underpinning the developmental vulnerability of Martu children are a complex interplay of historical, social, cultural and economic influences. The impact? More than half of the children in the Martu communities of Jigalong and Punmu require early intervention services for developmental delays and related difficulties.

In 2016 and 2017, the Jiji program worked with 80 children in Jigalong and Punmu, approximately 60 per cent of the total number of children in both communities. Many of the children experience multiple difficulties including Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, trauma, otitis media and hearing loss, attention and behaviour difficulties, speech and language difficulties, intellectual disability and delays in the development of academic skills. These challenges place the children at significant disadvantage at school.

In 2016 and 2017, the Jiji program worked with 80 children in Jigalong and Punmu.

In 2016 and 2017, the Jiji program worked with 80 children in Jigalong and Punmu.

The students worked on individual programs with each child, aimed at addressing their specific challenges. As the weeks progressed, the therapists found that they, too, had much to learn and the children were the ones to teach them.

“We mostly worked as a pair, an occupational therapy student and speech pathology student, and liaised with the community and teachers to work out the most appropriate and beneficial ways of working,” said Jillian.

“Working with children to assist with school readiness and attention in class took shape in a variety of ways from classroom observations, small group sessions, whole class sessions, and individual sessions. Sometimes we would work on the salt lake, on the football oval, or in the classroom.

“It was so rewarding building connections and trust with children in the community, seeing them eager to participate and seeing tangible changes in them, particularly in their ability to engage in school.

“I left the placement feeling like a better person-centred practitioner. Before I wanted to solve people’s problems for them, or fix what I considered broken. Now I can see it is better to provide the support and education to allow people to identify their own problems and help to develop their own solutions.”

The future looks bright

On a mid-October evening in 2017, many of the key stakeholders associated with the Jiji program gathered at Curtin to celebrate its achievements. The two-year program had been more successful than anyone could have anticipated. In 2016 and 2017, 48 students and four supervisors provided more than 13,500 hours of supervised therapy to children in Jigalong and Punmu.

Results from an independent assessment of the program by Associate Professor Cori Williams, School of Psychology, demonstrate the value of Jiji from the perspectives of the children and their families, community members, elders, teachers, funders, Curtin students and the supervisors. The children have shown strong evidence of benefitting from Jiji in varying ways including their behaviour, social skills, attention, reading and writing.

A community member, commenting on the project’s positive impact on both children and adults, said, “I’m thinking now back to before we had Jiji mob at first, I just didn’t know what to do, but seeing all this and getting the teaching from you guys, seeing her drawing and writing letters, makes me feel I want to do more for her at home – like calm her down, get her to relax before school, so she’ll come back with more from school. I want more from her but I know it’s going to take time. At first, before Jiji came here, I didn’t know what to do.”

L-R: Jillian Briggs, occupational therapy student, Punmu 2017, Lauren Willis, speech pathology graduate, Punmu 2016, Professor Lorna Rosenwax, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Alice Smedley, speech pathology graduate, Jigalong 2016 at the event celebrating the Jiji program.

L-R: Jillian Briggs, occupational therapy student, Punmu 2017, Lauren Willis, speech pathology graduate, Punmu 2016, Professor Lorna Rosenwax, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Alice Smedley, speech pathology graduate, Jigalong 2016 at the event celebrating the Jiji program.

Shortly after the celebration, Professor Rosenwax flew to Newcrest Mining’s Telfer mine site for a meeting with the Martu School’s Alliance and key Jiji stakeholders, including representatives from the Jigalong, Nullagine, Punmu and Parnngurr communities, the Hon Alannah MacTiernan, Minister for Regional Development, representatives of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Pilbara Department of Education and the Pilbara Development Commission, representatives from Newcrest Mining and the CSIRO, Pilbara YMCA Directors and staff from the Western Desert Land Aboriginal Corporation.

“The Jiji initiative was discussed at some length. Jiji is highly valued by principals, teachers, families and the community generally for the positive effect it has had on assisting Martu children achieve at primary school,” Professor Rosenwax said.

“Minister MacTiernan announced that funding for Jiji for two communities for the next three years is now high likely. Additionally, there will be funding to provide occupational therapy and speech pathology services to two communities that do not receive Jiji. It will be based on the Jiji model of living in community for extended periods of time but without Curtin students.”

Professor Rosenwax with key Jiji stakeholders at Newcrest Mining’s Telfer mine site.

Professor Rosenwax with key Jiji stakeholders at Newcrest Mining’s Telfer mine site.

For Jillian, who attended the October celebration at Curtin with her fellow students, the impact of participating on the Jiji program has been far-reaching and profound, and will continue to inform her professional practice as an occupational therapist.

“I thought I had a decent grasp on many issues concerning Aboriginal people, and a fair understanding of Aboriginal culture. But I’d had such little interaction with Aboriginal people. My main learnings about Aboriginal people had come from units at university taught by white lecturers,” she said.

“The Jiji program gave me an opportunity to witness first-hand the social determinants of health relating to Martu people in Punmu, but also provided me a glimpse of their strength and resilience. I now feel that I’m more capable of understanding the impact of health determinants, while also gaining the appreciation that I might never fully understand.

“I feel incredibly indebted to many people for allowing me this experience, the Martu people for their generosity and openness, the Rawa community school for their time and patience, our supervisors for their enduring support and kindness, the staff of Curtin for bringing the project into fruition and for maintaining it, and to the members of various funding bodies for enabling us.”