The numbers are not huge, but the problem is real. A recent study by Portland State University estimated that over 10 percent of Iowans cannot read well enough to function in a society that demands literacy. In a state where education is valued, the concept of illiteracy is nearly incomprehensible to most of us. That may be why so many who carry the deficiency cope with it in secret. Many, in fact, lead relatively successful lives.
But there is a cost, both personal and societal. The Iowans who cannot read might surely be more successful if they could. And their success would contribute more to the state.
Aware of the need and their own potential, many have sought help to change their lives.
Carey Hamilton is learning to do something that they didn't teach him in school. Carey is learning to read. At age 42 it might be the second hardest thing he's ever done. Admitting that he couldn't read was harder.
Carey Hamilton: Because you don't want nobody to know that you're having trouble with reading. I can remember when I was in grade school, back in the third grade that I learned only two things. I learned my alphabet, I learned vowels, A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y and that's where it stopped at for me.
Carey learned to hide the fact that he couldn't read. There was a time he had a job driving a truck. If his route changed he would call home to get directions from his mom because he couldn't read a map. All the simple things that we all take for granted, such as buying food, Carey found challenging.
Carey Hamilton: You know what you're going for but you don't know the words that you're supposed to see when you want to pick up something out of a grocery store. That gave me a lot of trouble. But now I can go in a grocery store and I know where I'm going, I know what words I'm looking at, looking for.
It might surprise you to learn that Carey is not alone. Heather Crabbs is a stay-at-home mother of three who is also learning to read. She, like most people who struggle to read, has an inner circle of friends who help her with the simple things.
Heather Crabbs: I think the most frustrating part of being a parent is when you're trying to communicate with teachers and I can't write a simple note to their teachers, I just can't. I actually ask my neighbors. My neighbor comes over and she'll write a note for me to the teacher when I need to communicate with them. I was so embarrassed and I'm tired of being embarrassed. You know, just the fact that I didn't get, you know, I didn't understand what they were teaching when I went to school. I don't think that's anything to be ashamed of now.
Most people who don't know how to read are stuck in minimum wage jobs with no chance of advancement. Norma Kenoyer, however, runs her own cleaning service and at one time had people working for her. She too had relatives and friends that knew and could help her get by.
That began to change the day one of Norma's clients discovered she had a secret.
Norma Kenoyer: Well, I always wanted to read. I was put in special ed and I'd just read the coloring books and played games and made things and rugs and stuff, but I never did learn to read. I always wanted to so I was cleaning this lady's house and she wrote me a note: "clean off the refrigerator." I couldn't read it, so I cleaned everything but the refrigerator. And she says, "Hmm, you didn't clean the refrigerator out," and I finally told her I couldn't read, and she got me in the program.
Norma, like Heather and Carey, is learning to read at the Adult Literacy Center at the Drake University School of Education in Des Moines.
Anne Murr, Drake University Adult Literacy Center: In my observation every person who comes here has a learning disability. They didn't start out in life with a learning disability, they started out with a learning difference. When they weren't given the information they needed to know how words compute over time not being able to read becomes a disabling condition. Learning disability doesn't mean I can't learn, it just means I haven't found a way that will help me learn.