Sitting in that room that day, literacy experts and safety advocates together, we soon came to a striking realization: we're trying to reach the very same people!
At the top of every gift-buyers' list this year you'll find books. From rare finds to bestsellers to cookbooks and every variety of how-to advice.
For as long as I can remember I have always loved to read. To me, a wonderful book is as delicious as a homemade chocolate chip cookie, warm from the oven. And though I have always treasured the gift of reading, I have also taken it for granted. It was only recently that I began to give much thought to what life is like for those who do not learn to read and write well as young children.
How sad to miss out on the adventures of a good book! Worse yet, how frightening to be unable to read a prescription bottle or the insurance claim forms that follow a trip to the hospital. How exhausting to try to use a computer, decipher a map, or make sense of the written aspects of almost any job in today's world.
But as a career safety advocate, what I've come to worry about most are the safety implications of being unable to read well. For example, what happens when parents of young children cannot make sense of the information sent home from school about how to plan and practice a home fire drill? How can people be expected to use safety products when the written instructions that accompany them are beyond comprehension?
To be honest, these questions had never occurred to me until 2003 when my colleague Peg Carson and II had the good fortune to meet the staff at ProLiteracy Worldwide, the oldest and largest nonprofit literacy organization in the world. Jane Hugo, Linda Church and their colleagues painted a vivid picture of the nearly 90 million men and women across our nation who struggle every day to navigate the written world. They explained that low literacy is not a matter of intelligence or choice - the reasons people grow to adulthood without solid literacy skills are as varied as the individuals themselves.
For many, undiagnosed learning disabilities in early childhood may have led to frustration and failure in school. Family circumstances, often economic, may have meant frequent moves, disrupting and undermining the learning process. Immigrants may be highly literate in their own languages but have not yet learned English. Without strong reading and writing skills, these members of our community eventually enter the working world faced with limited employment options and lower earning potential.
We then shared information with the ProLiteracy staff about the people in America at highest risk of fire death: the very young, the very old, and the poor. We talked about how hard fire departments try to reach the public with lifesaving information, and too often miss high-risk segments. We described how devastating it is for firefighters when, despite heroic efforts someone dies in a home fire.
Sitting in that room that day, literacy experts and safety advocates together, we soon came to a striking realization: we're trying to reach the very same people! Literacy programs are targeting adults, who are often caregivers of both young children and older adults. And adult caregivers bear most of the responsibility for fire and life safety at home. And without help, they won't be able to create a safer home environment for their family members.
This led me to several difficult questions about our nation's fire safety education programs: How effectively have we reached the adults best positioned to ensure the safety of children at home? How many low-level adult readers have we helped with the fire safety materials currently available? And if fire departments aren't routinely able to teach basic fire survival skills to adults with low literacy skills in a way that matches these learners' needs, who can?