PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
BEETSON: There’s no greater gift you can give an individual than to learn to read and write. The analogy I guess you could draw is like blind people being able to see. It’s no different for people that are illiterate. Once they learn to read and write you open up a whole new world.
PRESENTER: That’s Jack Beetson, a Ngemba educator from Brewarrina in northwest New South Wales, who’s campaigning for higher rates of literacy within Indigenous communities.
More from Jack later.
By the age of 15, more than one-third of Australia’s Indigenous students do not have the adequate levels of reading literacy to meet real-life challenges and may be disadvantaged in their lives beyond school.
That means there are a lot of Indigenous adults around the country who need to work hard to get their literacy skills up to standard.
This year is the National Year of Reading and to celebrate, we’re talking about learning to read and write past school age. It’s never too late.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the Year of Reading at the National Library of Australia with some more sobering facts.
GILLARD: Around 4.5 million working-age Australian adults don’t have the high level of core literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed at work or study.
Now illiteracy is a tragedy; it’s as simple as that. A tragedy compounded by the fact that it’s so unnecessary. In a rich country like ours with universal education, we can do better.
To be able to read is a form of enfranchisement, just like having the vote. It’s a passport to full participation in the life of the community and I want every Australian to know the joy and the pleasure that comes from books and reading.
PRESENTER: That was Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
For many of us, being able to pick up a book for entertainment or education is taken for granted, but a lot of people in remote areas don’t even have access to books they require to maintain their literacy skills.
Debra Dank is a Gudanji woman from the Northern Territory who works with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
She couldn’t imagine her childhood without reading, even though she grew up in the bush where access to books was difficult. Now she supplies books free to remote Indigenous communities.
DANK: I was in the Kimberley and somebody said to me, ‘Are you serious, you’ve got books to give away?’ He said, ‘I really need to get some off you because the community that I was out at the other day, the women out there, the older women, were literally reading phone books.’ That was the only way that they could read to maintain their standard Australian English reading skills.
And I think that’s what it means for people to have access to books in community; the ability or the opportunity to develop your language skills, in a different language; the language that is not your own but that we must master to be able to make informed choices.
PRESENTER: Those literacy skills that you need to apply to reading a book are the very same ones you need to fill out a job application or read the terms and conditions for a bank loan.
For Jack Beetson, who has been around the world researching ways to improve literacy, these are the simple reading and writing skills that need to be developed.
BEETSON: Learning to read and write doesn’t only give you the capacity to read and write, it gives you the capacity to speak up. It gives you the capacity to understand things.
PRESENTER: Jack has piloted a successful adult literacy campaign in the News South Wales community of Wilcannia called Yes I Can.
It’s based on a program that turned Cuba from a country with a 99.9 per cent illiterate population to the second highest literate country in the world.
The literacy program is open to all members of the community and teaches basic skills in 13 weeks. Participants then have the option to go on to post-literacy learning where they can increase their skills.
Jack says it’s a difficult step for an adult to go back to school and the whole community needs to get behind them.
BEETSON: As you do get a little bit older there’s other things that come into play. There’s things like the shame of going back to school. You’ve got a lot more on your plate in terms of things that you have responsibilities for, like your own children. Sometimes trying to find money to provide for your family.
All those things come into play whereas when you’re a kid, it’s not your total focus but you can dedicate a lot more of your time to the learning experiment, I guess. And at the end of the day, when you’re a kid, everybody in the community expects that you’re going to be going to school and learning.
When you’re an adult, there’s a lot of other things that sort of impact on your capacity to do it. But what it requires is not getting people into the classroom, not having a literacy program that works, it requires us as communities, wherever we are, to actually mobilise behind the people that need to develop their literacy skills.
PRESENTER: 48-year old Brian Gray, originally from New South Wales but now based in Cairns, is living proof that improving your reading and writing skills during adulthood can change your life.
He went through the challenges of adult learning, including feeling the shame of going back to school.
GRAY: That was one of the things I struggled with, the shame of going back and learning basic English and numeracy again.
But I found I didn’t need to be ashamed at all about it because it improved the way I worked and improved my relationship with people, it was like I have a voice now, I can speak. I have an education now. I have something to say.
That’s what the numeracy and literacy programs gave me, a lot of confidence in myself to speak, because I was very shy myself as well because I lacked that education when I was younger. Now I’m not ashamed to speak.
But if I didn’t go back, and if I allowed that shame to rob me of learning numeracy and literacy I wouldn’t be where I am today.
PRESENTER: Brian undertook literacy training in his late 20s and early 30s. This gave him the skills to get qualified as a drug and alcohol worker and he recently opened his own small business.
You’re listening to Newslines Radio. Today, we’re talking about how learning to read and write can change your life.
Yarrabah is a beachside Indigenous community an hour’s drive south of Cairns. The town of around 3,000 people has a number of adult literacy initiatives in place, producing some great results.
At the town’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, Gindaja Treatment and Healing Centre, improving literacy is seen as a way to help break the cycle of addiction.
Ailsa Lively is the CEO of the Centre.
LIVELY: We find that the major problem why people have addiction problems is because of their communication. They can’t communicate. They’re unable to do basic things for themselves like filling Centrelink forms in, little things like that, able to get their identification, opening bank accounts.
In the world today you can’t operate without those things and because a lot of our clients haven’t had the opportunity to get these things, that’s why they stay in the cycle of addition. So it is very important we have these programs in our centre.
PRESENTER: Ailsa has seen first-hand how adult literacy programs can provide clients with all sorts of opportunities.
LIVELY: It’s led them to be able to get their own accommodation, something that they’ve never had before. So being able to talk to real estate agents, fill in what they have to.
With employment, they also get their résumés done and some of them start to look for employment or training opportunities when they’re here. So, when they’re leaving they’re getting into this stuff. But also, just to be able to communicate with their job networks.
The longer term effect around increasing literacy, it does improve people’s lives, it starts to improve home life, relationships between families get stronger.
PRESENTER: Verdell Morris is a client at Gindaja and recently completed the literacy program.
It was a huge step forward for Verdell, who used her new skills to pass her driver’s test.
MORRIS: Yeah I just felt good, one minute I’m in there then I’m out, I’m happy I got it, got my learners.
PRESENTER: The Gindaja Healing and Treatment’s Centre’s literacy program is run by The Learning Workshop, which facilitates Indigenous adult learning around Australia.
They also help out the Yarrabah Community Council where employees are committed to improving their literacy skills, like Jasmine Keyes who works at the council’s childcare facility.
She’s receiving literacy and numeracy support to assist with getting a Diploma of Children’s Services.
With her literacy skills, Jasmine will be a great role model for the children she works with when it comes to reading and writing.
KEYES: It helps me to speak better and have more social contact with people, having more contact with the outside services; I wouldn’t have done that before.
I’d say don’t be ashamed to learn, you’re not too old or not too young to start learning literacy and numeracy, so get into it, it’ll build your confidence and you’ll get somewhere, you’ll get somewhere.
PRESENTER: Having the skills to read and write can mean the world of difference to the learner, but it has an impact on the country too. Here’s Jack Beetson again.
BEETSON: You’ll find that, as part of the data collection around the world on what works in literacy, is that the more literate your adult community is, the far more likelihood of your children becoming literate and attending school, so it has a flow-on effect.
If you want to get down to the hard and nasty stuff of it, at the end of the day, crime rates drop when people become literate, incarceration rates drop when people become literate.
And from an economic point of view, it’s in everybody’s interest to have literate communities because you’re certainly far more likely to have a job if you can read and write.
PRESENTER: All the courageous learners and educators in our program today show us how much of a positive change reading and writing can make to your own life, your community and the nation.
Visit our website indigenous.gov.au to find out more on the Australian Government funded literacy projects we’ve talked about today. You can read our Indigenous Newslines magazine there, listen to past radio programs and friend Newslines on Facebook.
I’m Nathan Ramsey, thanks for joining us. Catch you next time.