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Room to Read



Recently, I met a young Perth woman who'd had both her knees broken with a crowbar by her boyfriend.

He followed this up by putting a gun to her head, demanding a reason why he shouldn't kill her and, when her mother phoned her for the first time in months, he looked at her mobile's glowing display screen, said "there's the reason", and blew his head off in front of her.

She now teaches abused women to read and told me "you can't change your life if you can't read", which sounds like a glib truism, until you pick it apart.

Then it becomes a tolling certainty that echoes in your head each time you pick up a book or newspaper, fill out a form, read a street sign, go shopping or send a text.

This woman says she'd be dead from drugs today if she hadn't attended a good school.

"I knew there was a better life because I'd seen it growing up, but most of the women I work with have not," she said.

"And when you can't even read about the possibility of a different life, can't even go through the "Help Wanted" ads to get a job as a cleaner, it rarely gets better."

Imagine it: Not only can't you read job ads, you can't fill out the employment forms or apply for the dole, read a menu, the instructions on your medicine, the ingredients in your food. How would you use an ATM, read a map or rent a flat?

Another friend, Australian-born, some years ago confided to me that he can't read and that he survives via symbols - on beer taps, traffic signs, bathrooms and food stores.

The reason he's not sought help for his illiteracy is he's ashamed. That shame, though, is compounded by the difficulties he's faced simply finding someone to teach him.

When he told me this I thought, how hard can it be? When Julia Gillard launched this year's National Year of Reading campaign, she called it a national "tragedy" that 4.5 million Aussie adults lack adequate reading skills.

Curious - I Googled "adult literacy Australia".

The first website I tried, the 1800 number listed was disconnected, the second website's number went through to an anonymous voicemail, the third to woman's personal voicemail.

I then tried two state bodies and was given numbers for community colleges, the first of which said my request was "tricky", the second offered me courses in script-writing and public speaking - "Is that what you're after?"

I then retried a national literacy organisation and was given the number for the "Reading and Writing Hotline", which I rang and was coolly asked to leave a message.

Suffice to say, even the 50-minutes I spent Googling is beyond my friend's ability because he can't read and only admits it when drunk. By the time of this post's deadline, I'd finally located a course - through TAFE - but it had been quite a quest, even for someone who is computer literate (and can read).

Last year, I became an ambassador for Room to Read, a global non-profit organisation that tries to provide education to some of the world's 334 million illiterate girls.

In 12 years it has reached 6.7 million children (mainly in Africa and Asia), built more than 1500 schools and established 13,000 libraries, while supporting more than 16,800 girls through school.

It currently builds a new school every 26 hours, creates a new library once every four hours and distributes three children's books a minute.

I'm thinking maybe they should cast an eye on Australia?

I can recommend a great teacher.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

67 comments so far

  • Before we look at disadvantaged kids & families overseas, I think we should look at ours first. I highly recommend The Smith Family. They are dedicated to educating kids til Year 12.

    Thanks for the post, Sam.

    Warmest window sill in Sydney
    Date and time
    September 04, 2012, 5:26AM
    • Can't we look at both?

      Date and time
      September 04, 2012, 8:41AM
    • Australia is a rich enough country to help its own disadvantaged people as well as those overseas. This is not an either/or situation.

      Date and time
      September 04, 2012, 9:16AM
    • @Rebecca and @Rudy, Yes we are a rich country but rich is relative because we are rich per capita not rich in terms of total resources we have available to spend on all and sundry, good causes and every hard luck story we encounter. I agree we should help where we can but the best thing we can do to help others is to improve our own literacy levels to increase our ability to generate the resources we need to help. I instill in my kids that they must focus on being literate and being able to clearly state an argument, make a point or listen to anothers point of view because if you can't do those things you will not be able to do anything but merely survive. There is room to help where we can but we must attend to our local issues as the first priority.

      Date and time
      September 04, 2012, 10:13AM
  • Complex issue matey. I would suggest that it is difficult to teach someone who doesn't want to learn, and that is probably a big part of the problem. The reasons for that may be many and varied, most likely to do with the structure of families, role models, drug and alcohol issues, domestic violence, mental health problems and, um, well that's enough for starters really isn't it?? But I like your thesis, and as I am often wont to say - just because something is difficult doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Impressive piece today Sam

    9 days out from France
    Date and time
    September 04, 2012, 7:42AM
    • on a recent trip to Vietnam, our Black H'mong trekking guide had everything going for her. She came recommended, and was knowledgeable, personable, funny, fun..but during our trek, talking about her home life, she told me she was 'bored', due to the fact that she couldnt read. this hit home for me as i realised how much time every day i spend reading for entertainment, and nourishment. she'd basically hit a road block and although deserved all the success in the world, couldnt progress any further in her career and life because she coudnt read.

      Date and time
      September 04, 2012, 8:39AM
      • The other day I was required to take part in an exercise where people were asked what they saw as the greatest problem facing Australia today. I didn't get a chance to be asked, but after putting thought into it I was going to say that the absence of compassion and understanding was a root cause of many of the problems facing this country; therefore, it was our greatest problem.

        It manifests in many ways in public and private life. One of them is the fear that adult illiterates have of saying they can't read - because we're all supposed to be able to read, y'know, and if you can't, there is something wrong with you.

        It's a shame that people in such a situation feel that way, but if individuals make an effort to show a bit more understanding towards each other then perhaps more folks would be willing to admit they are lacking literacy skills and, going forward, take the steps required to develop them.

        I've met my pontification quota for the day.

        Good topic, Sam.

        hired goon
        Date and time
        September 04, 2012, 8:47AM
        • nice goonie - i likes it

          Date and time
          September 04, 2012, 11:32AM
      • I popped into the local library last week with a similar request (for a friend who is struggling to learn English) After a quick face to face conversation we had help and had been hooked up with a volunteer.

        Library Fan
        at my desk
        Date and time
        September 04, 2012, 9:06AM
        • It does seem incredible that we have the National Year of Reading campaign announced by our Prime Minister, and as you so frustratingly found out Sam, no services to back up the sentiment. Thanks for so clearly pointing out the inadequacy of our current approach to this adult problem. Certainly teaching our children is a priority, but being illiterate as an adult would so efficiently prevent most from getting help. Trying to imagine myself in their position is mind boggling...

          Date and time
          September 04, 2012, 9:25AM

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