The Observatory

Reflections on the 2022 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Conference

The 6th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health (NATSIEHC) Conference took place on 24-26 May 2022 on Larrakia country. It’s the first time that the conference has been designed and overseen by an Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group (co-chaired by Shaun Tatipata and Anne-Marie Banfield), which shaped its theme, program and emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander empowerment and self-determination. This was reflected in the theme “Our Vision in Our Hands” and it showed throughout with an inspiring, thought-provoking, and at times, very moving program. The 2022 conference event was co-hosted by the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) and the Indigenous Eye Health Unit (University of Melbourne).  

Featuring presentations from an impressive line-up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, the conference was headlined by keynote speakers: Thomas Mayor, Dr Summer May Finlay, Nicole Turner and Jaki Adams, who delivered the inaugural Jilpia Nappaljari Jones Memorial Oration. 

The theme of “Our Vision in Our Hands” was echoed in presentations across the three days of the program, as presenters spoke passionately about the work the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector and its leaders are championing around Australia to achieve better eye health outcomes for community. Thought-provoking insights were shared about the necessity for non-Indigenous organisations to become better allies to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and organisations in leading the work; and the opportunities that must be taken now to amplify the voice of Indigenous leaders in this endeavour. 

The conference also coincided with the National Sorry Day (26 May), and that day began with a sombre presentation from Aunty Maisie Austin, CEO of the NT Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation. Aunty Maisie spoke movingly about this year marking the 25th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) and the fact that the majority of recommendations remain unaddressed. Aunty Maisie highlighted the awful truth that the inter-generational trauma of the Stolen Generation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities is ongoing and more must be done to address and remedy the suffering.  

This was followed by an extraordinary brave and deeply personal presentation from Anne-Marie Banfield (National Manager of Engagement and Awareness, Hearing Australia), discussing the issue of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. Before colonisation there was no aboriginal word for suicide but now it is the 2nd cause of death for First Nations men and the 7th for women.  

Anne-Marie also spoke about 1 in 3 First Nations children having ear disease and hearing loss, an unacceptable figure. She urged meaningful change and action to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s and ensure she is not repeating these same statistics in 10 years time. The work she is leading at Hearing Australia to champion change is inspirational and should serve as an example for other organisations and sectors to follow.  

Day 1 Program Highlights 

The conference opened with two workshops: “Visions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health in 2030” which created a space for First Nations delegates to discuss their vision for future of eye health and vision care for First Nations People. The views and aspirations shared will be communicated and used to inform the direction and focus of eye health and vision care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, including the development of the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Peak Body.  

Non-Indigenous delegates attended a cultural awareness workshop: “Introduction to Kinship Systems” – facilitated by the Larrakia and Warramungu Elder Dr Richard Fejo. Dr Fejo ran a fun and informative session providing an invaluable introduction to kinship systems, community and family relationships. The session highlighted the importance of understanding the practical workings of the kinship system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and their interplay relevant for eye care service delivery for clinicians and policy makers. 

Day 2 Program Highlights 

On the second day, the 200+ strong audience was treated to a thought-provoking keynote speech by Thomas Mayor, a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man. Thomas is an author, advocate for workers’ rights and a lead campaigner for the Uluru Statement from the Heart proposal for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.  

The theme of the first Plenary Session was “Empowerment”, and it featured presentations on a range of topics including dignity and respect, community partnerships, co-design and Indigenous-led governance; housing and water infrastructure in trachoma prevention; proud history of ACCHO-led primary care and development of specialist community-led and co-designed eye care models.  

The session was capped by an inspirational and passionate presentation from Shaun Tatipata (Founding Director, Deadly Enterprises) covering Deadly Enterprises’ impressive work to date as Australia’s first Aboriginal-owned optical provider business. Deadly Enterprises provide access to culturally responsive eye care services as well as, affordable fashionable (Deadly) eyewear. Community engagement through the Deadly Cup Rugby League Carnival and the Deadly Eye Mob enterprise were also described as key social enterprise and engagement initiatives to promote Indigenous eye health.  

A keynote presentation from Nicole Turner (chairperson of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, IAHA, adjunct Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Uni Canberra and Aboriginal Workforce Engagement Manager at Rural Doctors Network NSW). Nicole’s illuminating talk focussed on growing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce and fostering pathways for young Indigenous people to enter health professions. Nicole described the establishment and successes of IAHA’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Academy, engaging with First Nations high school students to complete Year 12 with a Certificate III in Allied Health Assistance. It was another great example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and innovation, embedding cultural and holistic approach to health to engage and develop future health leaders. 

Dr Summer May Finlay, another keynote speaker (academic, Indigenous leader and advocate) tackled the important issue of culturally-appropriate language and communication with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and challenged the attendees to be better allies. 

A session of tabletop presentations and workshops followed, which provided the delegates with a rewarding opportunity to choose from a selection of presenters on topics such as data and evidence, developing progress reports on a range eye health and screening programs, collaborative care and community engagement to highlight a few.   

The Conference Dinner hosted by the organisers at the Char Restaurant was a lively fun affair with performance from First Nations comedians including the multitalented Dr Richard Fejo and the presentation of 2022 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Awards.   
Michael Larkin, Chris Rektsinis, Nicholas Schubert, Lauren Hutchinson, Will Chin, Mitchell Anjou and Orange Aboriginal Medical Service were all celebrated for their contributions to eye health. V2020A acknowledges their amazing work and adds our thanks and congratulations to each of them. 

Day 3 Program Highlights 

In addition to presentations from Aunty Maisie Austin and Anne-Marie Banfield described above, Day 3’s plenary session on “Guidance” featured presentations from Tanya Morris (State-wide Indigenous Eye Health Coordinator, QLD), highlighting CheckUp’s work in planning and coordinating eye health services in QLD, and a presentation by Tessa Saunders and Nick Wilson on the outcomes and recommendations of IEH’s Evaluation of the Regional Implementation of The Roadmap to Close the Gap for Vision Project. 

A/Prof Kristopher Rallah-Baker (Australia’s first and only Indigenous Ophthalmologist) delivered an inspiring presentation on the future of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce and shared his aspirations and vision for the future of the eye care and allied health sector. 

This year’s conference marked the inaugural Jilpia Nappaljari Jones Memorial Oration – presented by Jaki Addams. The presentation acknowledged the significant contribution Jilpia Jones AM made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health through her work with the Trachoma screening program in the 1970s, establishing community controlled health services and inspiring an entire generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health leaders. The oration included the moving story of Jilpia Jones reconnecting with her mother and family after growing up removed from country.  

At the conference close Professor Hugh Taylor urged delegates to support the Uluru Statement From the Heart. 

Concluding thoughts 

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Conference 2022 was a tremendous event, and it showed a way for the eye sector to work with and support Indigenous leadership and ownership of eye care into the future.  

Vision 2020 Australia was proud to support the conference by being on the Program Advisory Group and delivering a presentation on the National Subsidised Spectacles Scheme Project (which is it co-leading with NACCHO). 

Vision 2020 Australia also launched its first Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan at the conference.  Directors Jaki Adams and Shaun Tatipata joined our CEO Patricia Sparrow to make a commitment to actively pursuing reconciliation. Chair The Hon Christopher Pyne was unable to attend in person but sent a message highlighting the strength of the organisations commitment to reconciliation.