Feature, Orthoptics Australia

Celebrating Orthoptics Australia’s Diamond Jubilee

After 75 years of professional representation now is a good time to reflect on Orthoptics Australia’s achievements and history. Immediate past president Marion Rivers looks at orthoptics’ past, present and future in Australia.

In November orthoptists celebrated 75 years of having a professional association in Australia.

From humble beginnings in 1944, while the Second World War was raging, six orthoptists from across the country sent letters to each other and formed a national association. They believed this new organisation would provide each other mutual support, as well as grow the body of scientific work presented at conferences.

Emmie Russell, Orthoptics Australia’s first president

These early pioneers managed to hold conferences every year across Australia, publish transactions, produce local education meetings and were even able to establish a refereed Scientific Journal.

It was an interesting time for the profession. The synoptophore, a now iconic investigative tool, was first introduced here in 1931. Although the shape has changed considerably, it still has a place in the investigation of binocular anomalies.

In 1944, at the height of the war, orthoptists were recruited into the armed forces. Many were tasked with testing air force pilots for small changes in levels of ocular motility balance that could affect the way they landed their planes.

Following the war and a return to civilian life, many orthoptists moved into private practices and public hospitals.

Orthoptists were still very much involved in traditional orthoptic investigation and therapy, but by the mid 60’s they were performing many more investigative roles in ophthalmology clinics. This included visual field tests, tonography and investigating the new phenomenon of pleoptics.

By 1973 New South Wales and Victoria began to consider a move away from private training and into government-led learning institutions. We withstood challenges to this move, as well as challenges to the existence of the profession by other groups through changes to legislature.

In the years since the number of orthoptists in Australia grew. Formal training courses, always based in Sydney and Melbourne, began, and eventually moved out of privately-run courses established by ophthalmologists to University-based courses run at a post-graduate level. We now have numerous orthoptists with PhDs, and many more on the path to achieve this distinction.

There have been bumps along the way. Smaller courses are always at risk in a university, but orthoptics has moved from strength to strength. The University of Technology Sydney and its fabulous new School of Health Building at 100 Broadway is a particular highlight.

Alongside the advent of vison research, orthoptists’ scope of practice has evolved and become more sophisticated.

As ophthalmology investigations became more sophisticated, orthoptists moved with the times to support in this intensive and time-consuming area while never forgetting the roots of ocular motility, neuro-ophthalmology and the investigation of functional vision.

With this came the move into supporting the rehabilitation of people with low vision or vision loss from any cause, including acquired brain injury or ocular misadventures.

Orthoptics Australia now looks to a new era of management and growth as we seek a vote at this year’s conference meeting to become a Company Limited by Guarantee.

We now have a worldwide International Association, of which Australia was a founding member in 1964 alongside six other countries. We now have an organisation of 25 nations, with many more seeking to join.

Orthoptists are now employed in many managerial and health policy roles, both locally and internationally. Many retain expert clinical focus in the diverse areas of rehabilitation, low vision and blindness, surgical assisting, managing hospital clinics and traditional paediatric and adult strabismus and binocular vision.

We celebrated this growth and diversity at our conference in Sydney, attended by over 350 orthoptists. We have also launched a book written by two orthoptists Shayne Brown and Jill Gordon, titled: Rear Vision: Celebrating the Lives of Early Orthoptists.

Some of our oldest orthoptists, aged in their 90’s, joined us to celebrate our history and share their memories of the early days.

We now look forward with renewed enthusiasm for the next several years as we prepare to showcase orthoptics in Australia at the 2024 International Orthoptics Association conference in Brisbane.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marion Rivers has represented orthoptists for many years as part of the Orthoptic Board of Australia, the Federal Orthoptic Council has the distinct honour of being President of orthoptic association branches in three states. She was re-elected president of Orthoptics Australia in November 2017 and now sits on committees for Vision 2020 and Allied Health Professions Association.