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 then blew his head off in front of her.
She now works with abused women, teaching them to read, and told me: “You can’t change your life if you can’t read.”
At first that sounds like a glib truism. Then it becomes a tolling truth 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 today from drugs 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 has not sought help for his illiteracy is he’s ashamed. The shame is compounded by the diffi culties 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 “tragedy” 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 scriptwriting and public speaking – “is that what you’re after?”
Imagine it: not only can't you read job ads, you can't fill out the employment forms or apply for the dole.
I then re-tried 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 column’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 as well. I can recommend a great teacher.
Sam de Brito’s blog can be found at blogs.theage.com.au/executive-style/allmenareliars/