Celebrating our deadly Speech Pathologists! Meet Tara Lewis

Speaking up on language and speech – Tara Lewis is determined to make sure the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are heard. 


Tara is an Iman woman whose people come from around the Taroom area in central Queensland. She was born and raised in Brisbane, spending a lot of time with family in the Capalaba/Redlands area.

After graduating as a speech pathologist about 15 years ago, Tara was required by her Queensland Rural Allied Health Scholarship to take a rural placement, which landed her close to home in more ways than one.

Based in Biloela, she was sent one day to a school in a nearby town to assess a young Aboriginal boy. That appointment was a “turning point” in a career she has dedicated to challenging practices that arrived with colonisation and continue to cause harm to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Tara used the white, Western assessment tools she’d been taught to assess the boy, but it felt “really wrong”.

“I thought, hang on, we shouldn’t be assessing our mob and looking at their communication in this way. We should be looking at the ways we’ve been brought up, the ways that we know, our ways of knowing and doing.”

Her realisation was all the more powerful, because the boy had come from Woorabinda – the mission town where her father and his siblings were born.
“I knew we had ties, but I’d never really been there. I believe I was drawn there because I needed to have that penny drop.”

Tara changed the way she worked “pretty much straight away” after that, realising that too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids were being wrongly diagnosed, because their cultural context was missing in the assessment.

It became increasingly clear that lack of understanding about language and cultural ways can lead to misdiagnosis of language impairment, and even intellectual impairment, which can have huge implications for a child’s life.

“Our kids are being diagnosed with problems that they might not have, because they’re just speaking their home language, speaking a different way – how they were brought up.”
We all need to speak and understand English, she says, but not to the detriment of home language.

“Back when my dad was in a mission, they weren’t allowed to speak their language. If we force kids to speak in non-Aboriginal ways, we’re still taking language away from our families and our mob. We’re taking away identity and the connection we have with each other. It’s assimilation still. “

After Biloela, Tara worked for Queensland Health in Brisbane in various roles over a decade, always with the stipulation that she and her team “will be assessing our kids our way, making sure their voices are heard and we support them”.

Tara’s approach involves yarning with the family – to see if they have any concerns, to find out what else is happening in their lives and to make genuine connections.
“Then I’ll have a play with the kids, just a really normal play about the things they’re interested in, without formally assessing them. I’ll have a yarn and get a language sample to see how their expressive and receptive language is going.”

Tara has worked as a team leader at Queensland’s Institute for Urban Indigenous Health and now coordinates speech and occupational therapy services for its Deadly Kindies program. She has research scholarships from the Lowitja Institute and the POCHE Centre at the University of Queensland, and is part way through her PhD on culturally responsive ways of assessing communication for Aboriginal children.

A foundation member and former board member of Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), Tara sees IAHA as a second home, and a place of safety and support. She was honoured to receive the IAHA Award in 2013.

Despite often feeling like she is hitting her head against a wall, she has seen welcome changes in her profession. They include a growing recognition of the need for cultural responsiveness, and improvements in the way research is conducted following the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee at Speech Pathology Australia.

Her worry is that, without a persistent voice to keep them questioning and thinking, mainstream speech pathologists “could revert back to what they know, what their experiences are and how they’ve been trained up, rather than continuing to challenge themselves.”

That’s in part what’s driven her to develop the Gumerri language assessment tool for Aboriginal children. It’s a board game with drawings and Aboriginal artwork, based on her childhood days at the house in Capalaba, and time spent with her brother and cousins at the nearby creek.
“Gumerri is based on my childhood experiences with my family.”

“It’s around stories. We grow up listening to our Elders’ and families’ stories and taking what we can – what’s important to us at that time. Gumerri is about letting kids explore and experience and tell us a story, and then we take from them what’s important at that time for them.”

August 20, 2020


Posted by: Renae Kilmister