by Michelle Rainer
Anick Dionne can't believe that in one of the world's wealthiest countries, there are millions of people who have difficulty reading the everyday material that most of us take for granted.
"If someone's stumbling with their reading, a lot of people will say something like, 'Learn how to read,'" she said, lowering her voice in mock contempt. "People assume it's a given, especially because we live in a country like Canada where we have access to education."
Dionne, along with fellow program co-ordinator Anne Harkin, runs the Concordia branch of Students for Literacy, which teams student tutors with members of the community who need help with basic reading and math skills.
She began volunteering four years ago. "I wanted to give something back," the 27-year-old independent student said simply. "I see myself as fortunate enough to be in university, and I thought if I made it this far, then I must have something positive that I can give back."
Before starting her current position three years ago, she tutored a 19-year-old boy for a year. "He had dyslexia," said Dionne, adding that he found the sessions really useful. "It helped him fill out job applications." Eventually, he got a job in a hotel, where he was able to read most of the signs once he grew familiar with his environment. After a while, he no longer had enough time for lessons.
Unfortunately, the boy's experience was all too common. According to Statistics Canada, 22 per cent of Canadians can read only simple information that is clearly laid out. In Quebec, the number is 25 per cent. Dionne says that for these people, common tasks can be frightening and sometimes even hazardous.
"It starts with something as simple as picking up your mail in the morning," she explained. "There's a lot of stuff from the government which is not very user-friendly; they talk in technical terms which even most of us have trouble with."
Even worse, a person with low literacy skills might not be able to understand labels on household chemicals or prescription medicines, Dionne said. "A lot of language really isn't clear, and mistakes can be dangerous."
There are many reasons for poor literacy. Poverty or learning disabilities may be involved, and the education system doesn't always give people the help they need.
"Sometimes people fall through the cracks, and they have difficulty because the classrooms are getting bigger. Individualized attention almost doesn't exist anymore," Dionne said. "Not everybody learns at the same rate, and we all have different learning patterns."
Dionne says Students for Literacy tries to be aware of the social stigma attached to illiteracy. For many of the people who turn to the group for help, reaching out is scary.
"We've had a lot of calls where people call and leave a message," Dionne explained. "Then when you call back, there may be someone in the household who doesn't want other people to know, so you call and they'll say, 'Oh no, no one ever called for anything like that,' so there's a little bit of secrecy." Learners often request that they be kept anonymous, and tutors don't identify themselves when they call their learners' homes or workplaces.
"A lot of them have sought help before and were disappointed by people, or sort of belittled by people, so we try to make them feel as comfortable as possible," said Dionne. "Most of them find the experience really rewarding."
But the experience is also positive for the tutors. Not only do they have the satisfaction of helping someone else, but they also learn valuable job skills. Dionne says the 10 to 20 hours she puts in at Students for Literacy has helped her land summer employment. "It's great to have good grades and all that, but it's also important when an employer sees you gave your time to something else."
Unfortunately, participation in Students for Literacy is dwindling. "We get far more learners than we do tutors," Dionne said.
In fact, she's afraid the organization won't last. She is thinking of going to teach English in Asia, and her co-worker Harkin is graduating. "We'd really like to talk to people who are interested in taking over," she said, adding that there would be a shadow period during which new volunteers would learn the job. "It's something that I've worked at and that I'm really passionate about, and I would hate to leave and have to lock the door."
Want to volunteer? Call 848-7454, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org