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If Illiteracy Is the Disease, Then Literacy Is the Cure

In Economy, Education, Health, Media, Opinion, Politics on March 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Michael Martin and Gery L. Deer give a public reading of their writing during a Western Ohio Writers Association event, promoting literacy through creative prose.

By Gery L. Deer

Deer In Headlines 

Most Americans probably take for granted the ability to read and understand the words on this page. As a writer, I depend on the ability of the media-consuming public for my livelihood. But according to the National Adult Literacy Survey more than 42 million of my fellow Americans will never be able to enjoy (or detest) what I write because they can’t read.

Back in college, I took a job with the school newspaper as a staff writer where I learned a great deal about journalism and the power of the written word. One of the best lessons came from our staff advisor who once said, “No matter what your career or life path, your communications skills, reading and writing, will be your most valuable asset.” She couldn’t have been more correct.

I spent several years in the engineering fields for which I earned my degree, but ultimately I found my place as a full-time business writer, editor and columnist. Unfortunately, I found my calling far later in life than I’d have liked to due to an undiagnosed learning disability that seriously impacted my reading speed and comprehension.

Thousands of Ohio school children with learning disorders that affect their reading and writing skills continue to slip through the proverbial cracks every year, for a multitude of reasons I’ll reserve comment on for another time.

Suffice to say, it’s our own fault, and by “our” I mean the taxpaying public that does far more to insist on a fancier football stadium than to demand instructional accountability and better support for these kids.

Yes, there are laws in place and special education professionals to help identify and establish individualized educational plans for them, but, somehow, that never seems enough. Far too many still grow up unable to interpret the instructions on a can of soup.

Growing up, a person with illiteracy will adopt various coping skills needed to get by, but are never able to fully realize their potential. Illiterate adults have more difficulty finding jobs, developing business relationships or even doing household chores like paying bills.

Many politicians believe that illiteracy is one of those liberal issues, best left to bleeding hearts. In fact, such a staggeringly high number of illiterate citizens can be phenomenally detrimental to productive nation with a stable economy.

As the economy crawls to recovery, illiteracy will continue to keep some people on the unemployment lines, thus, adding one more contributing factor to suffocating fiscal growth. Adults struggling with illiteracy earn, on average, less than $250 per week, work less than 20 weeks per year and are at least ten times more likely to live below the poverty line.

How do we solve the problem? That’s a good question, with no easy solution. It often boils down to manpower and, dare I say it, money. If we think of illiteracy as the disease, then, surely, literacy should be the cure. So the best first step is to seek out help. Whether a child or an adult with a reading problem, there is help available, but sometimes you may have to get things started.

If you believe your child is struggling, meet with his or her teacher as soon as you believe there might be a problem. With tighter budgets, class sizes are increasing and sometimes being pro-active is the best way to get individualized help from an overwhelmed, underpaid faculty. You can also find tutors at local colleges and civic centers.

The same goes for adults as well. Community and career centers, local libraries and even senior citizen organizations are now offering adult literacy classes, either free or at a minimal cost.

And schools can help too by reinforcing the importance in the curriculum of the Three R’s –Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – with sharp emphasis on the first R, which will make the other two far easier to learn.

And, while technological education is important, particularly in today’s world, it might be time to cut back on the advanced computing classes and focus more thoroughly on reading skills. After all, knowing how to click a mouse is pointless if you can’t read what’s on the computer screen.


Independent columnist Gery L. Deer is the founder and director of the Western Ohio Writers Association. More at http://www.westernohiowriters.org.

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