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Battle against illiteracy goes on

Elisabeth Derisiotis calls on politicians to finally deal with the problem.

(E. Derisiotis)

In an interview with swissinfo, literacy campaigner Elisabeth Derisiotis describes the plight of 500,000 Swiss people with reading and writing problems.

The president of the advocacy group Read and Write called for more funds to tackle the problem of illiteracy. She was speaking ahead of International Literacy Day on September 8.

Some 860 million people - one fifth of the world's population - are unable to read or write, or have problems doing so.

In Switzerland, about a half a million people are functionally illiterate, having significant trouble reading and writing.

On International Literacy Day, 100,000 flyers in three languages will be distributed nationwide to highlight the problem.

Derisiotis, president of the umbrella group Read and Write in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, explains that alphabet soup will also be offered to illustrate the issue of literacy.

swissinfo: Can you describe what kind of problems a functionally illiterate person has?

Elisabeth Derisiotis: It is difficult for someone in this position to cope with everyday life. They have problems filling in forms, operating cash machines, deciphering packaging in shops. On top of that they have problems in their working life, and with helping their children with homework.

swissinfo: Research in this area has shown that one in six people in Switzerland have weaknesses in reading and writing, but there are no fully illiterate people. Is that correct?

E.D.: We can't really say that, because immigration has also brought fully illiterate people into the country. But our association is not responsible for them; there are special programmes in place for this group.

swissinfo: What are the causes of illiteracy?

E.D.: It is a general social problem that probably wasn't recognised in time and was allowed to persist. In economically difficult times it can get worse.

Some of those affected have difficult life histories, including people who were shoved from one school to another. But mostly we're dealing with people who fell through the cracks or lost the skills later in life.

I have asked for the issue to be more strongly incorporated into teacher training programmes so that teachers know what illiteracy is. However my suggestion has not been taken up.

swissinfo: Have politicians not given the problem enough recognition?

E.D.: It is recognised but nobody is really paying attention to it. Clearly, not enough is being done. Without the necessary finances it isn't possible to effectively work on preventing or combating the problem, nor is it possible to raise awareness and coordinate. It is high time that politicians provided the means.

Combating illiteracy is a difficult task, that isn't very attractive or highly respected. That's why things aren't moving forward.

swissinfo: How does Read and Write reach its target audience?

E.D.: That is our main problem. We can only reach a tiny proportion of our many potential clients: Through small awareness campaigns, publicity, and testimonies from those affected on radio and TV.

Around 1,000 people come to us from the German-speaking part of the country, another 800 from French-speaking Switzerland and fewer from Ticino.

Often people do not come of their own accord, but will be put in touch with us by someone they know. We must be able to do much more publicity work.

swissinfo: Is it mainly people from disadvantaged backgrounds who come to you?

E.D.: Of course people mainly come from less-educated backgrounds, but not always. There are also people who have forgotten how to read or write in the course of their lives.

Although women are more affected by illiteracy, they that doesn't mean more of them attend courses. We have roughly equal numbers of men and women, which means we are not reaching women as effectively as men.

swissinfo: Read and Write has been around for 20 years. What has changed in this time?

E.D.: We can talk of a stagnation because the figures have stayed more or less the same. Maybe the problem has come a bit more into the public domain.

The Pisa study, which highlighted young people's lack of language skills, caused quite a stir. Now there is more attention focused on this problem, which is beneficial for us.

swissinfo: Those affected by illiteracy often feel ashamed and hide their problem. How can we break through this psychological taboo?

E.D.: The problem must be approached head on. When people get in contact, we shouldn't beat around the bush, but address the issue pragmatically and not too cautiously.

swissinfo-interview: Gaby Ochsenbein

Key facts

International Literacy Day on September 8 marks the fact that some 860 million adults around the world cannot read or write. That represents one fifth of the global adult population.
In Switzerland, around 500,000 adults are functionally illiterate meaning they find it diffcult to read or write.
Whereas an illiterate person will normally have had little or no schooling, a functionally illiterate person has normally completed the compulsory schooling period.
The Read and Write association for adults in the German-speaking part of Switzerland was founded in 1985.

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