Reading and writing helps people to enjoy a full involvement in life.
If you can’t read or write it can hinder your social inclusion, progress and confidence.
Deirdre Corby discusses this issue, focusing on the key areas of friendship, leisure, learning, community and the role played by services.
Learning language and how to communicate starts from the day you are born.
We use language to explain how we feel about things, and to communicate with people around us. While we are learning speech and ways to communicate, we are learning things that will also help us with learning to read and write (literacy). Being able to read and write is important as it helps us in school, in work and in life generally. So, literacy is one of those areas that if we have difficulties with it, that can have an impact on our quality of life.
When we think about learning to read and write, we often think about children going to school but it should not stop there. Continuing to work on reading and writing even after you leave school is very important. Being able to read and write will help you go on to further education, get a job and be more independent. But it will also help in lots of other ways, such as maintaining friendships and being able to read or write for knowledge and enjoyment. Literacy also promotes an amount of autonomy, which may not otherwise be available, helping us be more independent and make our own choices. People with intellectual disability identify having poor literacy skills as a key feature of having a disability (Kenyon, Beail and Jackson 2014), and understand its impact on their quality of life. Literacy (and being a reader in particular) is also seen as a very positive thing and regarded as a valued social role (Forts and Luckasson 2011).
I am going to highlight some areas where reading and writing can affect our quality of life focusing on friendships, reading for enjoyment, lifelong learning, social participation and the role of services in promoting literacy skills.
Friendships are a major part of all our lives – regardless of their level of disability, people with intellectual disability enjoy good friendships, and these friendships meet an important social need (Kersh, Corona and Siperstein 2014). Sometimes keeping friends can be difficult and people may need support in finding people with whom they can begin to develop and keep friendships (Brackenridge and McKenzie 2005). Maintaining friendships can involve work as for example it can be hard to keep in touch with people and meet up. Being able to use your mobile phone to send text messages or read the bus timetable so you can get the bus makes it easier to stay in contact with your friends and make arrangements to do things together. Literacy skills will have a direct impact on the ability to have friends and keep friendships alive.
Lots of people also like to read for enjoyment and getting lost in a good book is one of the activities many people find relaxing. Reading is also an activity that allows people to engage with topics they find interesting (Stonier 2013) or want to find out more about. The use of online sources of information is also more accessible when poor reading skills are not creating a limitation. For many people with intellectual disability, literacy is about what is important to them in their lives. A good example would be someone who follows a particular football team being able to read the sports results or look up online how their team is doing. Being able to see what different players are doing, or which transfer deals are happening, is so much easier if you can get this information from reading the paper or fan club web pages. Leisure opportunities and the ability to source suitable leisure pursuits will depend at least partly on literacy.
There has been considerable research given to examining the importance of lifelong learning for people with intellectual disability, and the specific issue of literacy has come up in much of this research. Other studies have not looked at literacy in particular but have found that it is very important to people. A good example is the intellectual disability supplement to the Irish longitudinal study on aging (DIS-TILDA), which in its 2014 report highlighted that older adults talked about reading, writing and learning more about computers as being important to them.
To really be part of your community you need to be able to engage in a very active way. This involves skills such as being able to manage your own money, get a bus by yourself and be able to find your way around the community (Abbott and McConkey 2006). In the DID-TILDA report, the authors spoke about community participation and how people can find being included difficult if they have poor reading and writing skills (McCarron et al. 2014).
Having these skills, and in particular being competent in them, has been found to be one of the most important factors that predict being satisfied with your life (Miller and Chan 2008) for people with intellectual disability. Transport is often mentioned as a difficulty, and one of the main things that can act as a barrier to being included in the community (Abbott and McConkey 2006), as well as a barrier to being able to follow chosen leisure activities (Beart et al. 2001).
Role of Services
Services that support people with intellectual disability have a very complex and demanding function as they are trying to meet the needs of different people who have diverse hopes and plans for their life. More and more services have competing priorities, with new information and new policies adding to the challenges of providing a good service that people with intellectual disability want and deserve. One of the most important roles is creating meaningful and valued opportunities that will result in people becoming as independent as possible, with a feeling of competence that will result in an increase in both self-esteem and quality of life (McConkey and Collins 2010).
For service providers, the promotion of literacy skills is something that always needs to be thought about and planned for, as people may lose their skills if they are not offered within day or other services (Forts and Luckasson 2011). Services need to examine what are the best ways to maintain, improve and develop literacy skills and adopt suitable techniques to improve literacy levels (Hock 2012). The right to fulfil the potential for reading and writing will directly impact on improving the quality of life for people with intellectual disability.
I hope this article has helped to highlight how critical it is to think about literacy for people with intellectual disability with its links to autonomy generally, but in particular friendship and enjoyment.