September 7, 2009

The Great Costs of Adult Illiteracy

[Today we have a guest post from Ben Merrion, Literacy Outreach Specialist at the Adult Resource Center in the DC Public Library. They've got some important projects underway, so read on! -ed]

One out of 7 Americans has difficulty reading. This is according to the National Center for Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which is the most recent adult literacy report. In the DC area, that number is much greater - about 1 in 5 (19%). This literacy crisis is not something that's discussed much in the media due to many reasons - partially because those who are illiterate aren't consuming media, let alone producing it. It's an aspect of our society that can all too easily escape our attention.

David Harvey, the CEO of a national adult literacy advocacy organization, Proliteracy Worldwide, was interviewed recently on C-Span, and said: "That report shows overall we have a shocking, silent crisis in the country that we are not doing a very good job of remedying." He noted that "Funding has not been increased in over a decade despite this problem growing." Throughout the interview he mentioned how problems with the issue of adult literacy can be linked to other social issues. He mentioned how the sub-prime mortgage crisis happened in part because large numbers of loans were made to people who couldn't possibly comprehend the contracts they were signing.

Harvey also mentioned that a discussion about literacy is being left out of the debate around health care. Without sufficient reading comprehension, patients can make preventable mistakes -- like misunderstanding physician instructions and medication labels -- that have severe health consequences. He said that adult illiteracy costs our health care system 28 billion dollars a year -- and that if we fixed the literacy problem, we could have enough money to cover those uninsured. Also, the University of Connecticut’s 2007 report Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy suggested the cost of illiteracy is even higher -- $106 billion and estimated $236 billion each year -- because individuals with insufficient literacy could miss important medical appointments or might be unable to determine how often they need to take a specified medical test.

As Harvey says in the video: "This is an issue that is impacting on our economy and our global competitiveness."

Working at the Adult Literacy Resource Center (which is part of the DC Library), I offer information and referral services to those seeking help with basic skills, GED preparation and learning English. We also offer the GED Practice Test free to those who want to take the test without preparing and they have to take and pass it to be able to take the actual GED exam. I have seen many people who have come in for classes or to get a GED because they need a job. Unfortunately, if people do not already have the skills needed to pass the test, it usually takes months of studying. For those who need to find immediate sources of income, this isn't a message that is easily accepted.

But we need to provide more opportunities and incentives to engage people. To help stimulate the conversation, the Adult Literacy Resource Center (ALRC) and DC’s literacy coalition, DC LEARNs, are partnering on some upcoming exciting projects. We will create videos about successful adult learning experiences, and we will launch an adult literacy blog on DC LEARNs’ website in late September.

Also in late September, the Adult Literacy Resource Center will host an open event: “Is Reading Really Fundamental? How Adult Literacy Is Related to Different Social Issues” on Tuesday, September 29 from 6:30 - 8:30 pm at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G Street, NW in the Great Hall.

You can come to find out more about adult literacy and our projects to foster it. Interact with adult learners, providers and advocates; volunteer for an adult literacy program; and connect to the adult literacy blog. The featured speaker will be Talmadge Guy, author of Providing Culturally Relevant Adult Education: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century. Please RSVP by September 20th: You can email me or call (202) 727-2431. You can also sign up on Socializr. A flyer about the event is here.

Lastly, friend us on Facebook to stay updated!

This post was published in a similar form on Rebecca Katz' blog, which is focusing this month on matters of adult literacy.

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