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Is Literacy a Human Right?

Sunday, Sept. 8 was International Literacy Day, which since 1967 has marked the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights contends that all human rights are indivisible. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others. Across the globe, literacy is not only key to lifelong success, but is a precursor for people's ability to vote, advocate for change and otherwise fully participate in society.


In the U.S., research shows that children who read proficiently by third grade are more likely to graduate high school. Other benefits stack up over time: students who graduate high school are better able stay out of the justice system, find jobs with livable wages, live longer lives and have children who also graduate on time. In other words, literacy protects and advances human rights. 


But what about for the generations long removed from traditional K-12 school? If they fall through the cracks as children, what happens when they become adults? Literacy breeds opportunity, and that is not lost for adults like Marshall.


Marshall and his wife attended a marriage retreat to celebrate their 50th year together. At the close of the retreat, he was asked to write a letter to his wife describing his love for her and their life together. Although he knew the words he wanted his wife to read, he was unable to write them or read the letter his wife had written him.


At age 73, Marshall courageously stepped through the door of a United Way partner program and asked for help. Marshall, a successful building contractor and father to a college graduate, tested on a second grade reading level. After eight months of hard work with a tutor, Marshall retested at the fifth grade level, is now working towards his GED, and constantly writes love notes to his wife.


It is estimated that one in six adults in Rutherford County struggles with literacy. United Way and other partner programs are fighting to shift the odds so today’s learners and tomorrow’s leaders can build a better community. With an approach to education that spans from cradle to career, we’re ensuring every child gets a strong start in life, teenagers have the tools to learn and grow, young people thrive in the job market, and adults, like Marshall, have access to tools to gain the basic skills they deserve.


To learn more about what United Way is doing to support literacy locally, visit You can support literacy by donating to United Way or volunteering with local partners like Read to Succeed.