Raising awareness on Family Literacy Day

1/29/2014

​There’s more than meets the eye about Family Literacy Day.

January 27 marks Family Literacy Day, a nationwide initiative that encourages families to come together and engage in literacy-related activities such as reading and writing. There is no doubt that literacy is critical to a child’s development, and that families have a crucial role to play in encouraging and fostering literacy. We often take literacy for granted – even believing that it is not an issue for a country as prosperous as ours – so initiatives like this one are greatly appreciated.

However, for over 100,000 Albertans who are blind or partially sighted, the notion of Family Literacy Day can be a challenge. If your child has severe vision loss, then reading and writing together isn’t as easy as opening up a book or grabbing a pen and paper. In fact, for many children and youth who are blind, the path to literacy can be a lifelong struggle – not because of their disability, but because of the many hurdles they face living in a society that often considers their needs as an afterthought.

Our research estimates that only 7% of all printed materials are available in formats accessible to people with vision loss, such as braille, large print, audio, or accessible e-text. Imagine walking into a bookstore to find that there is only one aisle set aside for books, and the rest is full of empty shelves. The lack of accessible materials is not only alarming, but also questions our collective belief that literacy is a right, and that all Canadians should be given an equal opportunity to read and learn. (It’s also worth noting that Canada is the only G8 country that lacks a national, publicly funded library service for people with vision loss or other print disabilities.)

This being said, literacy is also much more than accessing and absorbing information. The proliferation of online and mobile technology is often viewed as a great step forward for people with vision loss, but it comes at a cost – it is believed that currently only 1 in 10 children in the United States are learning and embracing braille, a tactile writing system that uses raised dots to replace letters in the alphabet. Without a sound grasp of the alphabet, it’s difficult to spell. And if you can’t spell – in most definitions – you would be considered illiterate.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why only 30% of working age adults with vision loss are employed.

It’s time for our province – and our country – to once again consider the education needs of children with disabilities, including vision loss. A concerted effort must be made to ensure that more materials are available in accessible formats, and to create a learning environment that positions our future generations to be productive, contributing members of our society.

As you participate in Family Literacy Day activities this year, take a moment to imagine what it would be like if you or your child had vision loss. Thinking about it is one big step forward in addressing this important matter.

John J. McDonald is Executive Director of CNIB Alberta and Northwest Territories.

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