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HomemifeatureAustralia’s Trailblazing Optometrist

Australia’s Trailblazing Optometrist

As a bespectacled, sports-mad kid from the New South Wales mining town of Singleton, Adam Maher never dreamed he’d be a trailblazer. Now he’s found out he could very possibly be Australia’s first Indigenous optometrist.

When Adam Maher enrolled to study optometry at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 1998, the experience of his own first trip to the local optometrist was still vivid in his memory.

“I still remember coming home with my new glasses. I remember the TV ad that was on… and I could actually see grass, not just a green blob, there were actually little strands of grass!

“I had been struggling to see the board and the writing on the board. I had played a lot of sport and was quite active in soccer and I struggled a bit judging distances with the ball. I went to the local optometrist and he fitted me with some specs and eventually some contact lenses… I was ridiculously happy once I could see clearly. I thought it would be good to give other people that feeling, to give them nice clear vision and a whole new world.”

It is quite a proud thought to think that you’ve actually descended from the people that were originally here so that’s one thing that I always really cling to

He had no idea he was, in all likelihood, the first Indigenous person to study optometry in Australia.

Graduations

It is inevitable that any claim to be the first in any arena is likely to unearth counterclaims from others.

Last year, Jenna Owen graduated with distinctions from the UNSW School of Optometry, winning the prestigious CooperVision Australia prize for the best Year Four performance along the way.

Her achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she grew up in the tiny town of Albert (population 11) 150km west of Dubbo. There was no primary school at Albert, so she had to travel an hour on the bus each day to attend classes in Tottenham, a town of just 300 people.

For a while, Ms. Owen believed she might be the first Indigenous person to graduate as an optometrist, but then learned of the existence of Shannon Peckham, who graduated in Victoria in 2004.
The First?

It was the publicity around Ms. Owen’s recent graduation that started Adam Maher wondering if perhaps he may actually have been the first Indigenous optometrist.

He had graduated from UNSW in 2003, winning the Neville Fulthorpe Prize for Clinical Excellence in his fourth year.

“When I went to UNSW, I went to the Indigenous Centre and they said they thought I might be the first (Aboriginal) optometry student, but I just always assumed there was someone before me,” Mr. Maher said.

He said the question of whether or not he was the first only arose when “mum was at the hairdresser reading a magazine and saw an article on Jenna… I just wanted to find out for my own interest really”.
Mr. Maher said he “still can’t believe” that he is – in all likelihood – the first Indigenous person to graduate in optometry in Australia.

“I’m really happy that there are not one or two, but three of us. But that’s still only a small number. We all graduated in different years and in different circumstances, so hopefully together we can inspire more people, and that’s great,” Mr. Maher said.

Proud Heritage

Adam is from the Aniwan tribe, from Uralla, a small town on the New England Highway, about 500km north of Sydney. While he was raised in Singleton, his grandmother still lives in Uralla.

The family has a sad connection to the stolen generation – his great grandmother came from a family of seven girls and two of the youngest sisters were stolen from the family.

“They were just picked up one day after school and shipped off to a couple of families in Sydney, I believe… Mum said that the two sisters that were taken met up with my great grandma not long before she passed away… which was probably only about 10 years ago.”

Mr. Maher said his father is third generation Irish descent.

“I have the blue eyes and lighter skin… (but) my mother is Aboriginal and I identify as Aboriginal. It is quite a proud thought to think that you’ve actually descended from the people that were originally here so that’s one thing that I always really cling to. I really like the thought of that.”

Frustration

Mr. Maher said he’s “frustrated” by the poor standard of eye health among Indigenous Australians.
Reports by the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Eye Health Unit, released in May this year, revealed that blindness rates among Indigenous Australians are six times those in mainstream Australia. The reports, Projected Needs for Eye Care Services for Indigenous Australians and A Critical History of Indigenous Eye Health Policy-Making revealed a major shortfall in the provision of eye care services to Indigenous communities.1

“Every time I hear that at conferences, that Indigenous people are basically getting third world treatment in a first world country, I get so frustrated.”

Working Life

After leaving university, Mr. Maher returned to his hometown of Singleton for his first job as an optometrist, then came back to Sydney, working in Bondi, before moving back out to the country – this time to the Central Coast of NSW.

He said his time on the Central Coast gave him his first experience in disease management and pathology.
“I really enjoyed that aspect of the rural practice; such a broad range of people coming in with different problems. At a country practice, where the nearest specialist may be some distance away, people really need and appreciate you and that’s something that I’d like to get back to,” he said.

He is now back in Sydney and has spent the past 12 months working at Macquarie Eye Design in Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD.

The 33-year-old said one of the things that attracted him to optometry was the ability to set up your own business and he hopes one day to return to rural Australia and set up his own practice.

Inspiration

Mr. Maher said his parents had always worked hard – his father in Singleton’s coalmines and his mother at the local school – and had always motivated him to do the same.

He said that being the first Indigenous person to do something “wasn’t on my list of priorities” but he feels strongly that he would like to inspire teenagers from rural areas “both Indigenous and non-Indigenous” to continue their studies.

“Most of my friends left school in Year 10. If you can inspire someone to do something more, that’s great.
“I’m really happy with what I’m doing. I have no regrets in becoming an optometrist… when you can essentially change someone’s life by giving them good vision and helping them if they’ve got eye conditions, eye irritations or diseases… just seeing that look on their faces when they have clear sharp vision again, I find that really quite rewarding.”

References
1. Available online: www.iehu.unimelb.edu.au/publications/the_national_indigenous_eye_
health_survey

Australia’s First Indigenous Female Optometrist

Shannon Peckham is Australia’s first Indigenous woman to graduate in optometry. She grew up in Mareeba, a small town with a population of around 7,000 in Far North Queensland, approximately 70km from Cairns. Ms. Peckham comes from the Wiradjuri People of Dubbo in NSW.

She completed her optometry degree in 2004 at the University of Melbourne, having been recognised along the way with the David Scott Leadership award in 2001 (the award is a joint initiative of Future Leaders and the Trust for Young Australians).

Ms Peckham told mivision that it is a great honour to be recognised as a pioneer for her people in the field
of optometry.

“More so I feel the spotlight should be placed on the growing number of Indigenous graduates, which is an important step in our goal as a nation of ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people”.

When she was accepted to study optometry, Ms. Peckham was just 17 years old and “did not fully realise the significance of my course acceptance and therefore potential to be an inspiration to future school kids and help my community”.

“It was the staff at the Melbourne University Centre for Indigenous Education (CIE) that really celebrated my enrolment and opened my eyes to the opportunities I now had available.”

Ms. Peckham’s entry into the workforce enabled her to quickly realise some of those opportunities and in doing so, make a difference to her community.

Working with OPSM OneSight Clinics, she has been able to provide basic eye care needs and spectacles to communities, which may not otherwise be able to access these services.

“In my six years of practice I have been fortunate enough to be involved in providing eye care for Indigenous patients with diabetes in remote clinics, working fulltime in rural parts of Australia and school screenings with provision of spectacles with OPSM’s OneSight program in primary schools,” she said.

“I have participated in trips to Palm Island to assess school children’s eye care and vision needs, as well as worked alongside (NRL Cowboys Captain) Jonathon Thurston in OPSM’s OneSight Clinic promoting the NRL’s ‘Close the Gap’ round.”

“Today it is thought that there is a higher precedence in ocular health and vision problems amongst Indigenous people than previously believed to be the case. There is evidence to support that the occurrence of blindness in Indigenous people is up to 10 times more often than in non-Indigenous people.”

Yet, Ms Peckham points out, studies indicate that Indigenous people are less likely than non-Indigenous people to receive appropriate levels of eye health services and treatment.

“Tragically, the most common causes of blindness are through treatable conditions, such as cataracts and trachoma. Through regular contact with health professionals, early education and intervention these numbers could be decreased.”

Ms. Peckham loves her work as an optometrist and says that the best part of her job is “providing patient care and education to provide a solid foundation for eye care in the future”.

Additionally, she says her job has allowed her “the freedom to work fulltime, while travelling all over Australia, meeting and treating people of every kind”.