If illiteracy was a health issue, it would be a pandemic. What if I told you that more than one in six Canadians do not pass the most basic set of literacy tests, and that number increases to approximately half of Canadian adults when the assesment level is raised to high school standards. If that does not concern you, I don’t know what could. These statistics from Statistics Canada were absolutely shocking to me because that is a concerning amount of people who cannot read. And for the level of severity that these statistics show, there seems to be no significant conversation about it. Poverty, food insecurity, social and economic equality are all examples of topics that come up in your head right away when I say, “important global issues.” Illiteracy, on the other hand, is likely not one of them. Even stepping back and looking at this issue with a global lens, there are 773 million illiterate adults around the world. Good afternoon, judges and fellow students. I’m here to tell you about a global crisis that is completely invisible to the eyes and how literacy may just be the answer to everything.
Illiteracy, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is a “ lack of the ability to read and write” You might be thinking, I don’t know any illiterate adults, are you sure this is a problem? A response like this is exactly why it’s one of the biggest problems that we face today. It’s a problem that is severely overlooked and very easy to hide.
When these people do identify themselves as someone who struggles with reading and writing, they are humiliated, called "dumb, stupid, and lazy”. But there’s more of these people than you think, as you found out today. Illiteracy does not happen because that person didn’t want to or was too lazy to learn to read or write. Difficult living conditions, learning disabilities or lack of encouragement and stimulation during highschool or even post-highschool can lead to low levels of literacy. Maybe this can serve as a warning to some of you.
Let’s put this into perspective. Imagine for a day you are thrown into an AP Spanish or French or Japanese class. And unfortunately that one day the teacher decides to give the class a reading comprehension test, and hands you a sheet of paper packed from top to bottom with this strange language. The pressure is on, and you don’t understand more than two consecutive words on that page. But what can you do? The time is ticking and everyone else seems fine.The test is over and everyone is talking about just how easy that test was. And you couldn’t understand a single sentence. Now imagine feeling that embarrassment and pressure every single day, trying to do everyday normal tasks. Whether you’re trying to read the headlines of the news, read the menu at Starbucks, read a notice about rent. It’s like an unending assessment written in a language you don’t know at all. The difference is that we have google translate, but people who are illiterate don’t.
So at this point hopefully you understand how being illiterate or having low level literacy can make your life 100 times more miserable. And life already comes with struggles. But perhaps you may be thinking, “well that’s a really unfortunate problem for that individual” I am here to tell you that this is not an individual problem. The solution to solving illiteracy may just be the solution to all of those “important global issues” I mentioned earlier. There is no economic, social, or political equality without literacy.
The knowledge of individuals and what they can put to productive use – aka human capital – is arguably the biggest driver of economic growth. And literacy is a key element of that human capital. According to research, an average of one percent increase in literary skills in Canada for example, would eventually produce an additional 54 billion dollars annually in GDP.
If we consider social impact, higher levels of literacy skills means more stable employment, higher wages, and higher levels of social engagement including community service. Literacy also plays a huge role in sustaining the democratic process. This skill is what enables active participation in politics.
The economy, society, politics, ultimately all have to do with literacy. Finally, Statistics Canada shows a strong relationship between literacy and, wait for it, physical health. Low literacy levels means hindered access to crucial information, like written medical directions, or even having the information to realize you need medical help. As a result, poor literacy means to have poorer health.
The economy, society, politics, and even physical health has literacy at its foundation. It is the root of all aspects of a prospering country. Can you imagine what kind of global prosperity we could achieve if those 773 million illiterate adults were literate today?
The first step to achiveing global high level literacy is to recognize that we are privileged to be literate but also that literacy is a fundamental human right. We can contribute in fostering an environment that encourages and values literacy, not facing away from the problem. Breaking the cycle of illiteracy will allow everyone to enjoy and participate in all of life, something that many of us in this room take for granted. Without literacy, life can’t be lived. So if you were to take one thing away from this speech, it’s that maybe you should consider picking up a book. Thank you.