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Dec 2017 Our Mail

Dr Dimity Dornan, has dedicated decades of her life to bringing sound to the lives of deaf children. If the senior years of life are supposed to be about doing nothing much except ticking off everything on your bucket list, Dr Dimity Dornan did not get the memo. There’ll be no lying back with a margarita on some exotic faraway beach for her. Instead, it’s business as usual for Queensland ­Senior of the Year 2018, the state’s entrant in Australian Senior of the Year, to be announced on January 25. Recognised worldwide for her groundbreaking work changing the lives of thousands of deaf children by helping them learn to listen and speak, Dornan was Queenslander of the Year in 2010, but admits to being slightly taken aback when approached to be Queensland’s Senior.

Pip Russell etc(left-right) Queensland Local Hero winner Pip Russell, Queensland Australian of the Year winner Johnathan Thurston, Queensland Senior Australian of the Year winner Dr Dimity Dornan, and Queensland Young Australian of the Year winner Phillip Thompson

“I suppose it’s really quite funny, I’ve now moved up to the senior section!” she says in our interview in one of the beautifully designed rooms at Hear and Say’s premises in Brisbane’s inner-west Ashgrove, which opened in 2015. “The Senior Australian of the Year people rang and asked if I’d like to accept it and I said, yes, I’d love to, but then I had second thoughts later on. (I told them) if I had to be Queensland’s ­Senior Australian of the Year, I’d really like it if you didn’t use my age if you can possibly do it.” But isn’t there a certain irony here? A person of senior years being feted for her achievements not wishing to mention her age? “I prefer to be treated as a professional, rather than have age define me,” she says. “I just feel that it’s such a competitive world, it’s much better to compete on your merits, rather than your age.”

Let’s just say then that Dimity Dornan, PhD, AO, ­author, speech pathologist of more than 50 years’ standing, inspirational promoter of the largest paediatric cochlear implant program in Queensland, which has used Auditory-Verbal Therapy (AVT) to empower some 10,000 children to fulfil their potential in life, is older than 60 but younger than 100.

Hear and Say – the private, not-for-profit organisation she ­established in 1992, treating six young ­patients from rooms she shared with her physiotherapist husband Peter Dornan in the inner-western Brisbane suburb of Toowong – has just celebrated its 25th birthday. A new book cele­brating the history of the centre, Sounds of Hope: The Hear and Say Story written by Brisbane author Madonna King and published by University of Queensland Press, was launched by Governor Paul de Jersey.

Hear and Say now has six centres around Queensland, treating children and their families here, as well as around the world, using new telecommunications technology that allows face-to-face interaction. The acclaimed facility ­offers its services to any deaf baby or child no matter where they live. Currently two in every 1000 babies are born deaf in Australia each year and it is the most common disability in newborns. Hear and Say ­relies largely on fundraising on top of ­government grants, and part of Dornan’s job as its executive director is being its tireless advocate, a lobbyist par ­excellence, a passionate and moving speaker whose eyes still fill with tears when she speaks of her life’s work, or the moment – which never ­becomes stale – a child first hears the sounds of the world. Dornan was born Dimity Crist (pronounced as in “crisp”), the eldest of four girls and a boy born to Richard “Dick” Crist, a Shell sales rep, and his wife Marjorie, a full-time mother. Dick Crist was a World War II veteran and, before their marriage, Marjorie worked in US General Douglas MacArthur’s mapping department.

The Crists were of German descent (the name was spelt “Christ” but along the way the “h” disappeared) and were pioneers of the Toowoomba region. Dick’s mother, Alice Guerin, was of Irish origin. Alice died before Dimity was born but she was always intrigued by the mystery of her grandmother’s portrait, and by the fact that she was a ­writer. But it was her grandmother’s work as a teacher that lit up her impressionable granddaughter. “She came from Ireland with her parents in the early vanguard of teachers who were meant to upgrade the quality of education in Queensland … she travelled with her father to different state schools, eventually became a pupil teacher and then a teacher herself at a very young age.”

Dornan’s parents believed in the value of education, too. The family lived on a large block at Corinda in Brisbane’s southwest, and Dornan and her sisters attended Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent there. From an early age, Dornan knew she wanted some kind of career that involved helping people. The family knew a professor of psychology from UQ who lived nearby, who told her about a new speech pathology course. Dornan would become one of the first graduates in speech therapy at UQ.

Dr Dimity DormanDr Dimity Dornan of the Hear and Say Centre with Edward Mewing (2)

Her first jobs involved working with patients with head injuries. “It was wonderful work, but then I got the opportunity to work with children with hearing loss. I said to my prospective employer, ‘but I don’t know anything about hearing loss!’ And she said something that changed my life, something I like to pass on to other people. She said: ‘No, but you have the ability to find out’. So I’ve been finding out ever since – I’ve become a lifelong learner and that’s what I’ve been up to. People think they’ve got their qualifications, and then they sit back, but I’ll tell you what, life’s not like that.”

Which is why, besides her work as Hear and Say’s executive director, the fundraising and the meet-and-greets she ceaselessly undertakes every day, Dornan is ­increasingly absorbed in the area of bionics, founding ­Bionics Queensland and the Human Bionics ­Interface, an Australian research collaboration project to grow the ­bionics ­industry. She has also ­secured a manufacturer for a cutting-edge invention, a hearing aid that allows people to hear in noisy restaurants.
This is a woman who is constantly learning.

As if her days aren’t busy enough, there are now four grandchildren she enjoys with her husband whom she married in 1967. The couple has two children – Brisbane-based Melissa, 49, who runs a business helping mothers get over traumatic births, and Melbourne-based Roderick, 47, known as Rod, who works in IT for IBM.

“I came late to my career,” Dornan says. “I was always a speech pathologist but I didn’t start doing Hear and Say until my own kids were in uni, so I’m sort of a late starter, if you like, in that area.” She began working with deaf children when she had to learn sign language to work with hearing-impaired children at Zillmere North Special Education Unit. She became frustrated that parents weren’t involved in reinforcing their children’s learning, and eventually found her way to the Shepherd Centre in Sydney, which in turn led to a Churchill Fellowship to Canada to study AVT.

Research shows that the critical brain period for learning to speak is within the first three years of life, therefore early diagnosis is essential. Once a baby or child has been fitted with a cochlear implant, AVT successfully develops the listening and spoken language of kids with hearing loss by stimulating auditory brain development. The input of parents is critical to reinforce learning.
When Dornan speaks of giving the gift of sound, her eyes fill. “I feel very strongly that I have a purpose in life,” she says.

Dornan mentions the Future Hear Project, which she is working on with Queensland University of Technology, which aims to build ears for children born without them. It involves the 3D printing of a prosthetic ear and a bio­degradable scaffold built from a child’s cartilage and skin cells that will allow an ear to grow. It’s nothing short of ­miraculous. It’s also nothing short of all the little miracles ­Dornan has guided along the way, from teaching a child to distinguish an “f” sound from an “s” sound, to getting ­citizens to part with their money to help a deaf child. Do we care if Dr Dimity Dornan is classified as a senior, junior or middle-aged Australian? My guess is we care more that people like her keep doing what they’re doing, while the rest of us keep being grateful.

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