Grappling With Realities of Illiteracy

In some parts of America, as much as 50 percent of adults can't read. Rochelle Ford lives in a section of Washington, D.C., where half the adults are illiterate. Peter Waite, director of Pro Literacy America, explains the special challenges in educating adults.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And for every success story like his, there are thousands of Americans still struggling. Some choose to keep battling illiteracy rather than risk the shame of asking for help. Just ask Rochelle Ford. She's a married mother of three, living in southeast Washington, D.C. where she lives in the Eight Ward, 50 percent of adults are functionally illiterate. Nine months ago, she was too. But then she got help, she's been participating in a program put out by the Washington Literacy Council since last November. We've also got with us Peter Waite, executive director of ProLiteracy America.

Rochelle and Peter, welcome.

Ms. ROCHELLE FORD (Resident, Washington, D.C.): Thank you. Glad to be here.

Mr. PETER WAITE (Executive Director, ProLiteracy America): Glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So Rochelle, when and how did you decide to get help with your reading?

Ms. FORD: Well, I always wanted to learn how to read. It was just a matter of finding somewhere to be taught. I've always asked for help. No one ever me the help. I told my teachers in school that I couldn't read and instead of helping me, they've put me in the back of the classroom and give me work for a first grader.

CHIDEYA: So what about your family, could your parents read? Could your siblings read well?

Ms. FORD: My mother - she read pretty well. My father did also. My brother did. When I couldn't read with - I couldn't read, my sister couldn't read because in school we were in the same classroom, so what I didn't get, she didn't get and I never told anyone else that I couldn't read because I was just - I didn't know I couldn't read. I was waiting to learn how to read.

CHIDEYA: Now, when did your mother find out that you couldn't read?

Ms. FORD: My mother found out when I was 17. And she found out because I have a brother, he was incarcerated and I asked her to help me write a letter to him. And I've said, mom, I need your help. Could you help me with this letter? And she said, yes. But I asked her for every other word, how you spell every other word. And finally, she said what's the - you can't read? And I looked to her and I said, no, ma, I can't read and that's how she found out.

CHIDEYA: Well, Peter, let me turn to you. Rochelle obviously has walked a really rough road and bravely to get where she is today. How common is this kind of a story?

Mr. WAITE: Why, it's just phenomenally common and it's one that is, you know, particularly sad. You know, we're looking at a circumstance where nearly 20 percent of the adult population is in the similar situation where they're reading at very substandard level. They're at what we consider up a little basic level. And as you talked about in Washington D.C. alone, a recent study showed that numbers approaching 50 percent falling in that category.

And so, it's a serious, critical American problem both from a workforce perspective but also from a family and individual perspective where you hear the stories of Rochelle and you realized the kind of difficulties and challenges that she's had and many individual's like her. So it's an enormous problem, often a hidden problem because it's something that people just don't see unless you're really experiencing it.

CHIDEYA: So, how deeply is this linked to poverty?

Mr. WAITE: You know, there's obviously an enormous correlation that you might expect. Folks aren't going to contend that literacy, illiteracy or low levels are going to cause poverty. There are lots of causes, but the correlation is enormous.

If you look at the incomes of people at the lowest levels, they are, by far, below the poverty level nationwide. And it's really a key, as you heard earlier today, a key to success and a key to a better job and a better life. It enabled to increase that educational level and certainly getting beyond what you'd consider a basic literacy skill.

CHIDEYA: Rochelle, take me through the time between you were essentially outed(ph) as being illiterate when you were 17 and the moment when you decided to make a change in your life. What - that was years. What made you really step up and take control of your destiny?

Ms. FORD: When I was 18, I became pregnant. And I just couldn't see myself having a child not being able to read a bedtime story to him, or help him with his homework. I didn't want to be a parent and wasn't able to do anything to help my child. So that's what made me decide to go out and seek help.

Now, I just get - I just really got this help about nine months ago, but I've been always looking. And I'm really happy to have this program - that this program is out there, because I read it and know a lot about it. I didn't know there was adults out there who couldn't read. I really thought that I was in a place by myself. I didn't know it was so huge that a lot of grown-ups cannot read.

CHIDEYA: And when you think, Peter, about the fact that there are people who are looking for help, what would you say to anyone who's listening right now who might be looking for help, who may not know where to turn?

Mr. WAITE: Oh, boy, you know, it's just the point that Rochelle made so well is that they're not alone. This is what's really critical to get this message out. and shows and programs like this will help enormously. If the individuals often feel isolated all by themselves and that the only person out there who is experiencing this problem, and they're not. And there are programs in every community across the country. There are opportunities for people to be able to get in touch virtually every local library will be able to give you a referral point to find a program that's going to be able to help individuals at any age at any circumstances begin to help improve their reading and writing skills.

Not alone and as hard as it is sometimes to make that first step. And what a courageous one Rochelle did to go and come and say I need some help. And that's always the most difficult first step for any of the prospective students. And we're going to encourage them to realize that they're not alone, and in taking that first step that will give them an opportunity for empowerment.

CHIDEYA: Rochelle, you've said that you were looking for a long time for help. How did you finally find it? Was it someone who said, hey, you should check out this program? How did you find out?

Ms. FORD: Actually I'd seen a commercial. It was saying the 1-800 - I kept on dialing 1-800-READ-OUT, but it was 1-866. But - what I did was I went to a library and I walked up to this young lady and I said, do you have any information about any reading classes for adults. And I told her about the program I heard but I never could find it, and she looked in the computer and she pulled the Washington D.C. council. And I gave it a call and they set me up with Mr. David. I spoke with him and he told me where he was located. And I went in, and that's how I began.

CHIDEYA: That's great. And how has your life changed since you have opened up the world of reading?

Ms. FORD: It has changed tremendously. I have a lot of goals. I - my self-esteem has really raised - has really rise. I - it's just so many things that's possible for me now. I can go get my GED. I don't know want to stop here. I want to get my GED, get a good job. I even - I'm even looking into taking up different languages. Now that I could read them, I want to do more.

CHIDEYA: That's fantastic, and there's no reason that you can't achieve all of it. Peter, how does that make you feel to - in your capacity - work with people like Rochelle who really are making some courageous decisions to change their lives?

Mr. WAITE: Oh, boy. You know, it's just as inspirational as anything you could imagine. We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers and teachers and other engage and effective. This in time and time again, we hear from the teacher or the tutor out there that this experience working with an individual was more important to me than what it was to them. I gained more out of it even them -the individual or the student. And it's that kind of engagement, seeing the kind of growth that individuals can have by increasing these skills, that is an enormously rewarding and critically important element of the kind of service that we want to provide and need to provide nationwide.

CHIDEYA: Well, Rochelle and Peter, I want to thank you so much. And, Rochelle, good luck with everything.

Ms. FORD: Thank you.

Mr. WAITE: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Rochelle Ford is a mother of three, living in Washington D.C. Nine months ago, she was functionally illiterate. She spoke with us from NPR's Washington D.C. headquarters. We also had Peter Waite, executive director of Pro Literacy America.

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