August 27, 2001
This week, we are launching a story written by Dorothy Silver, from Fredericton, N.B. As a special event you can read her story as well as hear it.
Dorothy Silver is a wife, mother, grandmother, learner and leader. She helped organize Literacy Power Forum ’98 in New Brunswick, has been a keynote speaker at over 50 literacy information speaking engagements (including Literacy Action Day on Parliament Hill), has authored three books, was nominated for Woman of the Year by Beta Sigma Phi. Dorothy is also a video producer, Web page designer, pen pal program organizer and active fund-raiser – all to support literacy groups and other adult learners. She won the Canada Post Literacy Award in 1999 for Individual Literacy Achievement.
Play an audio version of this story
When I went into grade one, I was very anxious to start school. I could hardly wait. I looked so forward to it. But what a disappointment I had. Imagine. Such a little girl and before long, I was way behind the other children. I had a hard time with reading which was disappointing enough, but I also had a hard time with math. When I would do an exam on my math and I would always know that I knew my work. But I would be so devestated when I got that paper back and so confused because I knew the work. But the highest mark I ever got on a Math test was 10...out of 100!
They kept pushing me along from grade to grade. As a result of not doing well, I did a lot of fighting at school. There wasn't a bully in school I couldn't beat up even in my younger grades. When I see the behaviour problems today in school, I know what's happening. When you can't excel in school work, you have to excel in something, even if it's beating up on other kids. And I really do believe that learning problems are a basis of the behaviour problems in schools today.
School is the first place that we find out that we are different. It's where a lot fo children experience success but it's also where we experience failure, embarassment and other negative feelings.
Even as a physician try to remember to take five seconds to pat a child on the head and to say something positive, it might be the only positive thing that child has heard that day.
As I went on in school, things didn't improve. And it wasn't because I didn't want them to. The thing I wanted most in life was an education and that was out of reach for me. I blamed myself. I thought, if I'd only try harder. If I would only do more...but with all my efforts and I worked so hard it exhausted me, I couldn't do better.
You can't imagine what this did to my self esteem, my self value. Eventually, I just dropped out.
I was fifteen and I went out to work. But I realized that there just wasn't anything I could do without an education. I did house work, I looked after children, but this is not what I wanted to do all of my life.
Even though I was the one beaten, I felt I had to try again. So, at age twenty I went back into a one room school house with thirty children in grades one to eight. I wanted to get into high school, so I had to conquer math.
And as if things weren't bad enough, I got a teacher that almost destroyed me. She flew in on her broom every morning and parked it right beside my desk!
She would make me go to the board to do simple math. And I could not get those numbers down in the right order and she would make fun of me in front of the young children and humiliate me by having a small child go to the board and fix my mistakes.
The health paper I referred to states that some of the direct Effects of Literacy on Health such as:
Other things the report says are:
One doctor that I know says that the greatest waste in health care is the young parent who can not understand the message on the medicine bottle. They give the child the antibiotic for two days, see improvement, stop the medicine and a few days later end up in the emergency room again. And this happens again and again. Why? Because they can't read well enough to follow directions. Recently I had my own challenges with my health and in the past my husband and I have had our share of health problems. The health care system is not set up to understand the helplessness and fear that goes along with health problems. With waiting lists and less access to health care, the people who are least empowered suffer the most.
But what do you do when you are sick and feeling helpless? When everyone else in the world seems to think that we can all read and write?
When my husband had his heart attack, we were scared to death. After going home I was responsible for taking care of him. He was supposed to take aspirin. I gave him too many and this caused a G. I. Bleed. My husband almost died.
Another time he had an allergic reaction to paint and the doctor felt he had cancer of the voice box. They would not let him speak. The nurses handed him a pen and paper to communicate with. He could not write. He could not write down that he could not write. They did not understand why he was not cooperating.
Imagine the fear of losing your only communication! I thought we would never be able to talk again! He could not write me a letter, or note, and not able to speak! I feared that never again would I hear my husband say, "I love you."
Fortunately he did not lose his voice but that experience was a hard lesson for both of us. This was a turning point for us. We knew that we had to learn to read. It took us ten years but we did it and literacy helped us take control of our health.
My husband was still learning to read when he had his first heart attack. This meant he had to slow down with his learning because he when he made a mistake he would get upset. But he learned to read well enough to get by and to enjoy reading. My husband has had a lot of heart problems but he loves to read stories of the heart.
If we had not learned to read, we would not have changed out eating habits. We would not be able to read labels on food. We would not have learned about vitamins. We would not have learned about the importance of exercise. Reading, learning and becoming aware has changed us.
Every government department needs to take to the heart the serious impact of low literacy. Every government department must take literacy and its impact into consideration. One of the ways to reach people with low literacy is to support the people who can get the message out...the learners. Right now in this room we have learners who volunteer twenty hours every week to promote literacy and support learners. We know from personal experience the change that comes from learning to read.
People are unemployed, are poor, are addicted, are ripped off and are discriminated against because they can't read. People get in trouble with Revenue Canada, employment insurance and other government programs because they can't read. People are in jail because they can't read. I know that people die because they can't read.
I know that government is sympathetic to literacy and government gives a lot of support. But literacy programs need help reaching all of those Canadians who do not read or read well. Forty seven percent of Canadians have had the same problems I've just talked about. You might think that you can't afford more for literacy. But... if you think literacy is expensive...try ignorance.