Forgetting your reading glasses, or hiring people to take care of your paperwork are socially accepted actions. Not knowing how to read and write is not.
In one of the more high-profile cases of adult illiteracy a few years ago, Montreal Canadiens head coach and general manager Jacques Demers admitted he was illiterate until well into adulthood. He was able to get secretaries or media relations people to do most tasks that required writing.
According to the Canadian Council on Learning, about 40 per cent of Richmond’s adult population has a Level One or Two literacy level — Level One being the lowest, the average benchmark is Level Three. In some neighbourhoods, it rises to 63 per cent. However, that figure is misleading as it does not differentiate between those learning English as a second language and those who are illiterate in their first language. This means new immigrants are often lumped in the illiterate category, but they aren’t alone.
Two other groups of residents who struggle with literacy are equally prevalent, according to Margaret Dixon of Decoda Literacy Solutions, who partners with Richmond agencies to provide literacy services.
“Besides the immigrant group, there are those re-entering the workplace needing to upgrade their literacy levels and younger people who left school early and never went back for whatever reason,” said Dixon.
Sometimes those re-entering the workplace have been in a more physically demanding job for decades, which requires little reading, and due to an injury they’ve needed to transition into an office job, according to Dixon.
These could be people who either started a physical job right out of high school and are out of practice, or people who, because they couldn’t read and write, entered a physically-centred job where they didn’t have to.
“The causes of illiteracy are very unique to the individual,” said Melinda Johnston, Decoda’s communications manager. “A person could have had a learning disability that was misdiagnosed or not diagnosed and they just struggled through the school system, or they had to leave school early for a variety of reasons such as economical [needing to pick up work to help the family] or bullying.”
In his biography, Jacques Demers En Toutes Lettres written by Mario Leclerc, Demers talked about an unstable family home and an abusive father, where he was so anxious he couldn’t sleep or focus on anything in school.
One of the main problems with measuring literacy in an individual is, more often than not, that individual has found ways to hide his/her illiteracy due to embarrassment.
In other cases, people can sound out the words while not understanding what they’re reading, which also provides a cover, according to Lee Anne Smith at the Richmond Public Library. Many people don’t self-identify as illiterate.
Earlier in the fall, the library partnered with Kwantlen Polytechnic University to launch the Learning Together program, which combines family reading readiness with adult workplace literacy.
“Since one of the needs is for those re-entering the workplace, we decided to combine it with childhood reading,” said Smith. “The idea is that parents who are embarrassed about their literacy levels can come in with their children and learn as well.”
It was recently announced that the program received extra funding through the B.C government’s Community Adult Literacy Program. In total, $28,791 was injected into the Richmond CALP.
Learning Together has just had its first session and will be Richmond’s first stab at assessing more specific data surrounding literacy levels, as it assesses skills at the beginning and then at the end of the sessions.
The program includes story time, family literacy activities and the opportunity for parents to attend tutoring sessions to improve skills.
“Literacy is such a powerful thing because it can affect your health choices and job opportunities,” said Johnston. “There’s a high correlation between low literacy levels and poverty and poor health.”
Prose literacy is considered the most basic type of literacy, which is what the above figures account for. Other types include document literacy (understanding charts, graphs), numeracy (applying math skills to print, such as calculating a tip) and health literacy.
Analysts are now expanding to also include technological or computer literacy.
Although data doesn’t differentiate between ESL and illiteracy in the native language, community programs are specifically designed according to demand.
Dixon develops programs for Richmond organizations such as CHIMO and Touchstone and posts notices throughout the city.
“We meet with individuals and ask questions about their goals to assess the need,” said Dixon. “So it means they have to come to us, but generally people come to a point where they know they need help, even late teens identify this, and they are often eager to learn.”