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Overcoming Illiteracy

Do You Read Me? Einstein Is Helping Adults Say "Yes"

Some people live their entire life without being able to decipher the words you’re reading right now. Among the services offered by Einstein’s Children’s Evaluation & Rehabilitation Center (CERC) is its Adult Literacy Program (ALP), whose clinicians work with men and women with learning disabilities — helping them discover the power of the written word.

Einstein's Adult Literacy Program is the only one in New York City that is designed to assist adults one-on-one, in addressing their learning disabilities.
Donald Green working with Dr. Jaman Welch
Since its founding in 1992, the ALP has evaluated more than 2,000 adults of all ages, about 1,000 of whom have participated in the treatment program, according to Dr. Jaman Welch, an instructor in pediatrics and co-director of the program. As the only program in New York providing one-on-one literacy help for adults, he said, demand for the ALP's services is high. Up to 60 patients go through the year-long program annually, but many others must be placed on a waiting list.

The program’s mission is a natural extension of the work of CERC and its Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities. CERC clinicians help younger patients meet the challenges of learning disabilities, including reading difficulties. But dealing with such disabilities as dyslexia also requires a long-term perspective.

"The learning-disabled child of today will become the learning-disabled adult of the future," Dr. Welch said.

Unfortunately, learning disabilities that prevent a child from reading can become "invisible" as the child reaches adulthood, according to Dr. Welch. Adults who cannot read compensate by relying on other forms of communication, performing jobs that don’t require reading, or developing "workarounds" — such as using assistive technology, like text-to-speech programs, or memorizing the shapes of street signs.

ALP staff (from left): Drs. Jaman Welch, Monica McQuaid and Lauren Bodkin
ALP staff (from left): Drs. Jaman Welch, Monica McQuaid and Lauren Bodkin
An estimated 30 million men and women cannot read any better than a third-grader, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But for adults with learning disabilities, the problem is especially difficult. For these individuals, illiteracy is not just a matter of education. Learning disabilities like dyslexia are neurologically based conditions that affect how individuals process information.

"The people who come to us often say, ‘I’m a failure, I’m dumb.’ But it’s just not true," Dr. Welch said.

One of those people is Donald Green, 66, of Brooklyn, who has dyslexia and is partially deaf. Mr. Green came to the ALP seven years ago, and continues to participate as a member of its reading support group, facilitated by Dr. Lauren Bodkin.

"I couldn’t write a check, I couldn’t fill out a job application back then," he said. "But I kept all that hidden. I was embarrassed. And there are so many people in New York who feel the way I did."

Although Mr. Green has a knack for working with electronics, his career prospects were limited by his inability to read. He said he compensated by learning to manually assemble parts while others used computerized tools. Nevertheless, the future looked bleak.

"It was only after I came here that I realized I might be able to do something about the situation," he said.

Vernice Parchment reads a document during a session
Vernice Parchment reads a document during a session
After going through the ALP's year-long, highly structured course of one-on-one psychoeducational therapy, Mr. Green learned skills that allow him to read despite his disability. Just as importantly, he also gained self-confidence.

"This program has opened up so many opportunities for me, and it's given me all the confidence in the world," he said.

While reading sometimes remains a challenge, Mr. Green feels ready to tackle it.

"Now if I run into a word I don't understand, I know how to break it down. I know how to go about figuring out its meaning. I know how to get help if I need it, and I'm not afraid to ask."

Another patient who is tackling the challenges of dyslexia through the ALP is Vernice Parchment, 62, of the Bronx. Ms. Parchment’s disability led her childhood teachers to regard her as "dumb."

"I felt incompetent and ashamed," she recalled. "I didn't want to admit that I couldn't read."

For years, she hid the problem. But then she recognized the early signs of dyslexia in her son. The experience of seeking help for him led her to seek help for herself.

"Now I can read a story to my great-granddaughter. I can go to the doctor and understand the forms I'm given. And I'm not ashamed anymore," said Ms. Parchment.

The ALP's team of a dozen therapists "really know what they're doing," according to Ms. Parchment.

"They understand that I don't hear or see letters in the way that many people do," she said. "Thanks to the help of people like Dr. Monica McQuaid, my mind has really been opened."

The ALP team is just as enthusiastic about the changes that patients like Ms. Parchment undergo.

"It's easy to take reading skills for granted," said Dr. Welch. "But when I see the difference that reading makes for our patients, and how it changes their lives, even after a lifetime of coping without it … for me, that is a joy."

Posted on: Tuesday, December 10, 2013