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A former slave Frederick Douglass said, once you learn to read, you will be forever free. A century after he uttered those words, 30 million adults in the U.S. lack basic literacy skills. They struggle to read their children's report cards or the instructions on a bottle of pills. Many find it difficult to get and hold on to the most basic jobs.
Reporter Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU examines the challenges for older learners.
KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Shirley Ashley flips through a folder of certificates she's received in her adult education class. She stops at one that says "Top Performer," points to the words and starts reading.
SHIRLEY ASHLEY: I know this is top something, that means I'm doing good.
CARDOZA: The word performer is still a jumble of letters because Ashley, at 55, never learned how to read. In school, she was always in classes for students with learning disabilities, but Ashley says she wasn't learning anything.
ASHLEY: I felt as though they just passed me just to get me out of school.
CARDOZA: In the seventh grade, after one teacher told her: Whether you learn to read or not, I still get paid, Ashley decided to drop out. She learned how to give her mother medicine based on the colors of the bottles. To hide the fact she was illiterate, she memorized Bible verses so no one at her church suspected. And she limited her travel to a familiar route.
ASHLEY: I couldn't read the name of the bus, but I learned that the left-hand side of the street would take me downtown and the right-hand side of the street was going to bring me back home.
CARDOZA: Ashley's inability to read has made it hard to find a job. She's seen those closest to her take advantage of her illiteracy, especially when it came to money.
ASHLEY: I would have to pay them, my family members, to come over my house to do a money order. Sometimes I give them $25, sometimes I give them $30.
CARDOZA: Ashley has attended classes at a nonprofit literacy center on and off for about eight years. She initially tested at the kindergarten level; she's now reading at the second-grade level.
ASHLEY: When my gas bill come to my house, I'm learning how to read where it says pay by July 17th. That makes me feel awesome.
CARDOZA: Ashley is at what's called the low end of the literacy spectrum. Jason White, another adult learner, is a little further along.
JASON WHITE: The farmer would not sell his calves.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: His?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right.
CARDOZA: White is 35 and grew up in Louisiana. He dropped out in the 11th grade after years of sitting idle in a special education class. White found ways to cover up his reading struggles, from pretending he's forgotten his reading glasses to relying on computer's auto-complete function, even when he was out with friends.
WHITE: Say if you're at dinner with five people and you can't make out or read what's on the menu, someone says they're going to have the salmon fillet, you say, well, I'll have the salmon fillet.
CARDOZA: White works as a construction worker and, in a sense, he's lucky. Adults who dropped out of school are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as high school graduates. For those who do get hired, it often means low-end jobs with no hope of advancing. In tough times, they're often the first ones laid off.
For White, not being able to read means his career has stalled. To advance, he needs a contractor's license, and he hopes he'll be able to pass the exam next month.
WHITE: I'm very handy, and we do terrific work, but I'm technically not a contractor until I pass that exam, so it's a little nerve-wracking, you know?
CARDOZA: White has spent the past two years learning to read with a tutor. Now, he can write his own checks and has just finished reading his first novel. He marvels he can now read street signs.
WHITE: If we're driving somewhere, I can't help but read every sign we pass. It's like a different world.
CARDOZA: Jason White and Shirley Ashley, like tens of thousands of other adult learners are slowly and painstakingly trying to fill in the gaps of their rudimentary schooling. The long shadow of their unfinished education still follows them every day. For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, for millions of immigrants, learning to speak English is the key to a better life. But picking up the language is just one challenge and sometimes it's easier than finding the money, the energy or the time to do it.