Dr Bruce Shepherd AM, founder of leading children’s charity The Shepherd Centre, died on Friday, 25 May 2018. His tireless work as a pioneer of support for hearing impaired children transformed him from a high profile medical advocate to an iconic Australian.
RECEIVING the news that your child is deaf can be heartbreaking for parents. But it was this devastating moment, when Dr Bruce Shepherd’s children were born profoundly deaf, that triggered a lifetime of advocacy for early intervention services for hearing impaired children.
Dr Shepherd’s extraordinary achievements have helped Australia become one of the best places in the world to be born deaf. His legacy means that, through The Shepherd Centre, Australia provides services equal to those anywhere else in the world.
Dr Shepherd described himself as an “interfering man”. He certainly interfered with determination when it came to safeguarding the health system, the delivery of world-class health care to all Australians and access to early intervention services for deaf kids.
Born in Tamworth in 1932, Dr Shepherd finished high school at age 16 and commenced dentistry studies at the University of Sydney. However, he was too young to practice and instead started a degree in medicine, graduating in 1957.
Dr Shepherd’s exceptional talent and keen intellect saw him work at a number of prominent hospitals, including Auburn, Mona Vale and the Royal Prince Alfred in Sydney. Later, he established a thriving orthopaedic practice in Bowral, New South Wales.
After his own son and daughter were born with profound hearing loss, Dr Shepherd and his late wife Annette realised that there were no programs in Australia that would teach their children how to listen and speak. The Shepherds believed that, given the opportunity and right support, children born deaf or hearing impaired should be able to fully participate in the hearing world. They believed that this was the key to these children reaching their full potential.
Children with hearing loss were typically sent to designated schools for the deaf at that time, often as boarders. They were taught sign language and were isolated from their families and the hearing community.
After a long and extensive search, the Shepherds travelled to America to attend the summer program at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. They were impressed by the clinic’s methods of early intervention and were determined to bring this to families in Australia.
The couple founded The Shepherd Centre in 1970, marking the first time early-intervention therapy was an option in Australia to teach hearing impaired children spoken language skills.
Initially called “The Council for Integrated Deaf Education”, the Shepherds’ first centre was built within the grounds of the University of Sydney and started with just five families. Today, The Shepherd Centre helps over 500 children and families each year across five centres in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, as well as families in Tasmania, rural and remote areas of Australia and overseas via residential workshops and teleintervention.
The Shepherd Centre is now one of the world’s leading centres for “auditory oral therapy” and delivers remarkable outcomes for children with hearing loss. Recent outcomes show that most graduates from The Shepherd Centre go on to mainstream schooling – the majority with speech and language skills on par with their typically hearing classmates. Beyond this, the majority of these graduates develop into independent, contributing members of society, with high levels of education, social participation and full-time employment.
In the late 1990s, Dr Shepherd lobbied for the implementation of newborn hearing screening, a nationwide hearing test that identifies hearing loss at birth. The Statewide Infant Screening Hearing Program was established in NSW in 2000, and newborn hearing screening is now used in all Australian states and territories.
Dr Shepherd was awarded an Order of Australia for his efforts in deaf education in 1991.
His passion for quality health care was a recurring theme throughout his professional life. As an advocate for an independent medical profession, Dr Shepherd established the Australian Society of Orthopaedic Surgeons to look after the independence of orthopaedic surgeons. He also founded the Council of Procedural Specialists and was President of the Australian Orthopaedic Association.
He was elected to the Council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and became the NSW State President. He founded the Australian Doctors’ Fund (now the Australian Doctors’ Federation) to help maintain the independence of the medical profession, as well as the doctor–patient relationship. Dr Shepherd was also elected as Federal President of the Australian Medical Association, a position he held from 1990 to 1993.
He spearheaded the legendary battle that raged for years between doctors and a government determined to nationalise the medical profession.
Dr Shepherd became widely respected as a protector of the medical profession’s freedom and independence and of the patients it served. In his own words, Dr Shepherd said, “I argued that we must be the patient’s doctor; not the government’s doctor; nor the doctor of big business.”
Dr Bruce Shepherd will be remembered as a giant in medical advocacy and a pioneer in early intervention for deaf children.
Our deepest sympathies go to his children Penny and Danny and to all his friends, family and colleagues.
Dr Jim Hungerford is the Chief Executive Officer of The Shepherd Centre, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in early intervention to help children who are deaf and hearing-impaired develop spoken language skills.
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