Some Detroit parents struggle to understand doctors’ instructions, read prescription labels or measure the correct dosage of medication for their children, because an estimated 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate.
It’s impossible to say how much of a health risk illiteracy poses for Detroit children. Though studies have linked illiteracy to infant mortality in Third World countries, few such studies have been undertaken in the United States, where people are expected to be able to read and write.
Those working with Detroit parents say poor reading skills make it harder for parents to raise healthy kids, support families or prepare children with skills needed to enter school ready to learn.
“It’s all part of the same story of the uphill battle that Detroit families have to climb,” said Kristen McDonald, vice president of program and policy with The Skillman Foundation. “Parents who have low literacy levels are struggling to find work, and their low literacy levels make it more difficult for them to connect to critical systems like health care and human services.
“Imagine being a 17-year-old mom with a new baby without being able to read a pamphlet on safe sleep or the literature from Le Leche League about breast feeding. (Literacy and health) are absolutely connected.”
Wayne State University professor Daphne Ntiri, who is director of the WSU Literacy Outreach project and the Detroit Literacy Coalition, published a scholarly article on health illiteracy and the need for nurses and other medical professionals to be aware that not all of their patients can read.
According to Ntiri, research has shown that patients with poor literacy skills often wait until they are very sick before seeking medical care, are less likely to participate in health promotion or disease prevention activities and have little knowledge of their health conditions or illnesses.
“This behavior contributes to increased health care costs,” Ntiri said, adding that such patients often have trouble managing conditions like diabetes.
“Illiteracy impacts everything,” said Karen Gray-Sheffield, director of St. John Providence Community Health. “People who have low literacy skills are going to be hindered in employability and receiving information, whether it’s from a doctor or someone else.”
St. John Providence writes materials for its Infant Mortality Program and other services, such as prenatal classes and parenting classes, at a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level. It also screens clients for illiteracy, and refers moms to literacy classes or GED programs.
“The problem we have encountered is that individuals will come to us thinking they can complete their GED within a few months, but they may still be at a seventh-grade level as far as the assessment,” Sheffield said.
“We know that if we’re going to really change the cycle of poverty education is extremely important, because people who have not gained the education necessary to complete job applications and function in a way to get good jobs are going to remain in poverty, and do not have the skill sets to educate their children.”