Monday, October 17, 2005

So, you can't read. You're not alone

One of the most satisfying things to do in life is to pick up a good book and get lost in the story. The whole world continues to evolve and implode, while you are whisked away into a plot of imagination and creation that can't help but broaden your thinking, expand your knowledge, and entertain your senses. Reading is a pleasurable escape for many. But for close to 60% of the population of New Brunswick over the age of 16, reading is nothing but a stressful burden. This province has the second lowest literacy levels in Canada. That's appalling.

Illiterate individuals can't read the newspaper, read a story to their child, fill out an application form, read a transit schedule, locate information about events, can't complete an order form, can't access any information from the internet. They can't read their children's report cards, or other letters from the school. They are dependent on others for information.

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between families who have low literacy levels and low income. There is less value placed on reading and writing skills, less emphasis placed on the importance of formal schooling. Due to this, the drop-out rate is high with this group because of the ongoing difficulty or failure to succeed in the system.

Families with low literacy skills are more likely to be poor. It's the cycle. Minimal formal education, minimal marketable skills, lead to low paying or non-existant jobs.

Literacy is one of the major negative influences on health status. If you can't read or write, it is very stressful to arrange for medical appointments. You have an ache, you go to your doctor. The doctor arranges for a variety of tests, the information is passed onto you via a letter. Can't read the letter. Don't want to ask for help. Too much of a hassle. Life is stressful enough. Forget about it.

Low literacy impacts self-esteem. That's a given. Think about the daily overwhelming roadblocks one would encounter. Most days, it would be better just to stay in bed.

The reasons for illiteracy are many, and I've heard several variations in my line of work. Reasons range from abject poverty especially in a rural areas, to serious learning disabilities left undetected until adulthood, to growing up in a home where abuse is so rampant that survival supercedes all other "luxuries." One woman I met who was enrolled in an adult literacy program determined to learn to read and pass her GED (Grade Equivalency Diploma), told me that she lived in such poverty with many siblings that the only ones who could go to school were the first three out of bed who could grab one of the three pairs of underwear that the family owned. If you weren't one of the lucky undie owners, you were SOL! This woman was only in her 30's and grew up in rural New Brunswick. Not too long ago. Abject poverty is still alive and well in this province.

Our interventions have been hit and miss. Since the onset of CASP (Community Academic Service Program) which sprung up throughout the province during the McKenna era, many adult NB'ers have enrolled and attempted to upgrade their skills. Set up in as a community based program, accessible to anyone for free, and run by qualified teachers, one would think that the percentages would have declined. And yet.............why havent they? It's time for an overview of this program. Hard questions need answers. Taxpayers dollars are funding CASP and yet, there is little accountable information on the success or failure of them.

In the meantime, more than half of the adult population in this province live disenfranchised and disconnected. Their silence is deafening. You just have to open your ears and listen.

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