Monday, May 9, 2011

Detroit has few services for those with learning disabilities

From the Detroit Free Press:

Nearly half of all adults in Detroit lack basic reading, writing and other skills needed to obtain good jobs but not enough services are being provided to address the crisis, a study warns.

The report, commissioned by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, found that the current literacy programs and services are not meeting residents' needs.

In a city with an unemployment rate of 20.1%, 47% of adult residents -- or more than 200,000 people -- are estimated to be illiterate.

The study, conducted by the Ann Arbor-based Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, discovered that less than 10% of those lacking basic skills are getting the help they need.

Existing services are also not equipped to aid people with learning disabilities.

And the vast majority of programs are not geared to helping participants get a job or succeed in vocational training.

"We are not making headway," said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, director of the Workforce Fund. "We are actually stagnant."

She warned that if nothing is done, "we will continue to further isolate the population of Detroit from economic opportunity."

To tackle one of Detroit's most serious challenges, a coalition of community groups and government agencies last year launched 10 learning labs to teach people reading, writing and other basic skills they need to get jobs.

Today, thanks to $3 million in federal stimulus money, nine of the centers are running, providing free services to more than 1,300 people so far. Seven of the labs are in Detroit, with one each in Highland Park and Hamtramck.

"The bottom line is to get a person a job," said Dianne Duthie, director of the state's Division of Lifelong Learning.

The learning labs are one of the initiatives that the $3.5-million Detroit Regional Workforce Fund aims to support. A report commissioned by the nonprofit group found that not enough services exist to help the more than 200,000 Detroiters who lack basic reading, writing, math and computer skills.

And too few of the current programs available are teaching people the kinds of skills that will prepare them to get a job.

"Our state is not ready," said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, the fund's director. "We need to raise the bar and put the money here if we are going to catch up."

Contrary to perception, half of the 200,000 Detroiters who are illiterate have a high school diploma or GED, according to the report. Those most in need of help cannot perform such tasks as locating an intersection on a street map, reading and comprehending a short newspaper article or calculating total costs on an order form.

The report comes three years after the Michigan Council for Labor and Economic Growth released a study showing that one in three working-age adults -- or 1.7 million Michiganders -- couldn't read well enough to get a job that would support a family.

That study discovered that many laid-off workers in the state could not enroll in federally subsidized job-training programs because they could not read at a sixth-grade level.

Margaret Williamson, executive director of Pro-Literacy Detroit, the state's largest literacy organization, said she agreed with the findings of the Workforce Fund's report. Her organization provides tutoring for many young adults who can't read even though they have a high school diploma.

"We have woefully failed our young people," Williamson said. "It's really unacceptable."

She noted that literacy efforts in Detroit are facing an uphill battle because of severe cuts in government funding for adult education programs.

Tyler-Ruiz acknowledged that the fund will need to find additional resources to meet the huge demand for assistance.

The fund is supported by 10 foundations, government agencies and organizations, including the Knight Foundation, the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the U.S. Department of Labor.