Members of READ Surrey/White Rock wear purple to show support for Literacy Month, which is September in B.C. (Contributed photo)

Non-readers harder to reach in South Surrey/White Rock due to COVID-19

Being able to read, comprehend medical advice critically important during pandemic

During a global pandemic, being able to fact-check misinformation and comprehend written medical advice is more important than ever, however, COVID-19 has caused fewer South Surrey and White Rock residents who struggle with literacy to seek the help of a tutor.

READ Surrey/White Rock Society president Allan Quigley contacted Peace Arch News to raise awareness about the drop in the number of participants in the adult literacy program, and to outline what supports are available for non-readers in the community.

READ matches people who struggle with reading or mathematics with a tutor, free of charge.

While READ has been able to keep about half its “learners,” the organization has found it a challenge to find new people willing to learn. In recent months, calls of inquiry to the organization dropped 27 per cent.

On the best days – prior to COVID-19 – reaching people who struggle with literacy has been a challenge. Quigley described non-readers as being “hidden in society.” An additional barrier, Quigley said, is that non-readers are stigmatized, making them less likely to seek help.

“They don’t want to announce that they have low-literacy skills on top of everything. So, I mean, this is a hard-to-reach group,” Quigley said.

SEE ALSO: Surrey literacy group says non-readers ‘hidden in society’

Perhaps because of this low visibility, one might be surprised by the number of B.C. residents who struggle with low literacy.

According to Decoda – a B.C. organization that provides resources, training, and funds for literacy programs, nearly half of British Columbians aged 16-65 struggle with following instruction manuals, filling out tax returns, reading a rental agreement or don’t read well enough to understand health information.

That presents a health and safety concern for B.C. residents, Quigley suggested, adding that there were “rampant myths and rumours” that circulated in the early days of COVID-19.

“A good number of those with low literacy skills are… I mean, it’s just a fact, they are dependent on the spoken word… Well, if I trust this person, then I trust the information.”

An example of damaging misinformation was when the president of the United States, Donald Trump suggested injecting people with disinfectant could treat coronavirus.

It does not.

“And then I see that disinfectant knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. You see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number. It would be interesting to check that. You’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me,” Trump said in April.

Following Trump’s comments, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the city recorded a spike in poison control cases regarding exposures to Lysol, bleach, and other household cleaners.

READ literacy outreach co-ordinator Shanti Ang has put together a list of infographics and plain language information relating to COVID-19 on the readsurreywhiterock.com website.

“It’s really important, more than ever, that literacy is front and centre and that we’re thinking about these things and we’re sharing information,” Ang said.

Due to the pandemic, READ has shifted how it offers its tutoring sessions, which used to be held, face-to-face, in public spaces.

While some tutors and learners rely on Zoom, learners are not required to have access to a computer or the internet, Ang said.

“We ended up having to go old-school and we’ve mailed a lot of packages out,” Ang said. “We mail the books to a learner, and mail the same set to the tutor. And then that way, at least, they’re reading the same text.”

Word of mouth has been a key way the organization reaches new learners. READ will be closed throughout August, but will re-open in September. To learn more about the program or to connect with a tutor, visit READ’s website or call 778-242-7323 (READ).

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