Last month, an opinion piece on annarbor.com
called for action to reduce Washtenaw County’s 12 percent illiteracy rate. It was a thoughtful and heartfelt piece that encouraged readers to volunteer or donate to Washtenaw Literacy
, the organization of which I’m executive director. I was thrilled to see it, feeling that readers of annarbor.com would be particularly keen to address this issue.
Shortly after it posted, the first comment appeared: “I have a very hard time believing that ‘12% of our residents are illiterate.’ Someone would have to go a long way to prove that to me.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. Reading is so much a part of our lives that we assume everyone of a certain age has the skills. Further, people who can’t read are embarrassed and skilled at covering up. Illiteracy is the ultimate dirty little secret. It hides until crisis arrives – like a job loss. Then, it reveals itself as a strikingly formidable barrier to finding employment.
These are the people we see walk through our doors every day at Washtenaw Literacy. They put their pride on the shelf and come for help so they can find work and participate fully in a society that increasingly relies on the written word. I’m proud to say we’re there to help them achieve that goal.
Last year, Washtenaw Literacy helped 1,588 adults learn to read. It’s wonderful and fulfilling to know this, but frankly, it’s not enough. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, a passionate advocate for literacy, revealed shocking state statistics in an article in late July
: One in three working age adults in Michigan cannot read well enough to be hired for a job that can support a family.
You read that right: One in three adults in Michigan reads below the sixth grade level.
We have a long way to go to end the cycle of illiteracy in our county and in our state. Step one is to admit there’s a problem. If you want proof, I encourage you to spend a day at Washtenaw Literacy and see for yourself who in this county needs our help, needs your help.
Or, in the words of another commenter to the opinion piece, “Rather than quibble about percentages, why not do something positive and volunteer for Washtenaw Literacy's program? It's simple to look up the number in the phone book -- for those who can read.”