'They live in fear of being discovered'

News Corp Australia
22nd March 2019 10:22 AM
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IT'S a jingle that is impossible to forget. 1300 6 555 06. One three double oh, six triple fiiiiiive ohhh six.

If you've watched television ads over the past 25 years, it's almost certainly playing in your head.

That's very much on purpose, and for a very good reason.

The infamous number is for the Reading Writing Hotline - a service that helps adults with literacy and numeracy problems access help and education services.

Unfortunately, the 1300 jingle doesn't reach the people it used to.

Regional television audiences have plummeted, and the number of people accessing the ad have plummeted with them. 

The changing way we watch television presents a unique problem for the people behind the hotline. They can't rely on social media or online advertising if the people who need to see the ad struggle to read it.

According to the hotline's general manager Vanessa Iles, the problem is worse for those in regional areas.

The hotline does most of its television advertising outside of the major cities, and people from regional areas are over-represented in the number of people who call up. 

Men also call more than women. But male audiences of regional television have dropped by 50% since 2015.

"We know they are out there," Vanessa said.

"It's actually about reaching them."

The combination of falling TV audiences and rising dependence on the written word is threatening to leave struggling adults isolated. Not only from the public, but also from the people they love.

"Adults always have a reason (to call) and for a lot of people it's that they want to better connect with their friends and family," Vanessa said.

"They just can't get the connections they used to have.

"Some of the calls just break your heart."

WHERE DO THE CALLS COME FROM?

Alanah Ramsay used the Reading Writing hotline to get a referral to Byron Bay Community College, where she has almost finished a Certificate III in Disability Support.

Alanah suffered a stroke at birth and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy as a result. Both conditions contributed to a learning disability that she has dealt with through her life.

The 23-year-old now receives literacy support through REDInc in Mullumbimby to help finish the certificate. Her support worker has himself done the same course.

"I wanted to help people like me," she told News Corp.

Alanah Ramsay is studying a Certificate III in disability support. Photo: Alanah Ramsay
Alanah Ramsay is studying a Certificate III in disability support. Photo: Alanah Ramsay

Alanah is one of about 5000 people from across Australia who phone the hotline each year.  It equates to about 400 calls a month.

Callers who phone up on their own behalf are mostly men, mostly aged 25-44.

A total 33% of callers come from regional areas and another 6% comes from remote areas, despite only 2% of the population living remotely.

Vanessa said the most recent data suggested literacy rates were not improving - a concerning figure in a world where people are increasingly abandoning the telephone and relying on social media.

"People talk about the fact that they are just terrified someone somewhere will catch them out," she said.

"They live in fear of being discovered.

"Often they have very good strategies for dealing with it."

WHY DO PEOPLE IN REGIONAL AREAS CALL MORE THAN PEOPLE IN CITIES?

Don Perlgut is the chief executive officer of Community Colleges Australia and regularly researches education and literacy rates in Australia.

He said a vast number of factors affected literacy rates in different pockets of the country, but primarily it came down to access to education.

"It's really about education," he said.

"There is a direct correlation between literacy and education.

"The more remote you go, the less your education attainment is.

"It is connected purely and simply to accessibility."

Don said 10-20% of the population threatened to be left behind thanks to influences such as interrupted education, a lack of basics such as reliable internet and access to appropriate training services.

"They are poor, they are regional, they are remote… and often they are older," he said.

Don recounted the story of one student who decided to take a Microsoft Word course. The security guard used the writing skills he learned through Word to help secure a better-paying desk job.

"You know what he's going to study next? Excel." 

HOW TO HELP

The hotline is now calling on members of the public to phone up for their friends or family, or even their staff members or people under their care.

Vanessa said up to 50% of calls were made by professionals such as nurses, and even by bosses noticing a problem with staff.

"We talk with employers about not stigmatising," she said.

"That's when they (staff members) just shut down. They'll just disappear out of the work force."

Reading Writing Hotline 2001: This version of the Reading Writing Hotline dates back to 2001. Video: Supplied.

She also urged workplaces to simplify their forms and written procedures. It is the first place where adult literacy education begins, alongside the alphabet.

"Often they are unnecessarily complicated," Vanessa said.

Parents worried about teaching their children literacy can also phone up to access special resources designed by the hotline.

Signs that someone might need help with their literacy skills include struggling to fill out forms at doctor's offices or similar settings.

"Often it's school that presented a problem. They might have been sick," Vanessa said.

"Then they just get left behind."

She urged anyone looking for more information to phone the hotline.

"Helping one person helps everyone," she said.