Illiteracy Doesn’t Discriminate

Bill Haney, Author of “What They Were Thinking: Reflections on Michigan Difference-Makers”

Illiteracy doesn’t discriminate. It holds back men and women of every color, income and social level.

Some very well-known people have fought for years to hide the fact that they struggled with reading until that life-changing moment when they faced down the problem. That was the first strong step to overcoming a limitation that had long kept them from achieving their full potential.

Looking back, they often use the same words to describe that tipping point: “so liberating… a sense of freedom… a whole new world opened up to me…“

When an adult comes forward and asks for help, the first person he or she works with is most likely a volunteer tutor.  The bond between the learner and the tutor is critical to the learner’s progress.  These special volunteers must build a trusting and safe learning environment, and have the skill, empathy and commitment to finally break through the barriers created by a lifetime of illiteracy.

One of the best-known figures in Detroit and Michigan masked his illiteracy so well for so long that no one ever guessed. Finally, at age sixty, Jacques Demers made that crucial decision.

From 1986 to 1990, Demers had been head coach of the Detroit Red Wings and was named NHL Coach of the Year in consecutive years. Two years later he won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens.

Jacques Demers, Detroit Red Wings (Head coach, 1986–1990)

Jacques Demers, Detroit Red Wings (Head coach, 1986–1990)

Even though he was a highly successful NHL coach and had used his popularity to do many good works, there was an even more lasting way he could help others. But first, he had to break through the wall he had built around himself.

His first big step came when his wife Debbie confronted him over concerns about unwritten checks.  He broke down and told her the secret.

With that barrier broken, not only did Jacques Demers acknowledge that he could barely read, he proceeded to do it with written words—he coauthored a book to tell his story. He hoped that his once-painful and now-inspiring story would elevate the issue as well as embolden men and women to free themselves from the bonds of illiteracy.

For twenty years, Demers had been a high-profile coach for elite NHL teams. His book and his revelations were a bombshell. How could someone reach the highest elite level in any organization and be illiterate? How could a man rise through the ranks in a major professional sport and not be able to read?

It was also ironic that a strength of Demers actually worked against his becoming literate. “When I was given the possibility of talking, I could speak well and I think that really saved me.” But it undoubtedly also enabled him to delay confronting his inability to read and write at a functional level.

Demers traced the origins of his illiteracy to a bad home life and several childhood pressures, saying, “If I could not write or read, it was because I had so much of a problem with anxiety because of the things going on in the family. I couldn’t go to sleep at night. I’d go to school and I couldn’t learn anything.”

Those difficulties and his ultimate triumph over them were recalled in 2009 when Demers was chosen to fill a Senate seat by the Canadian Prime Minister who said that Jacques Demers “raised awareness about literacy issues by going public with his own struggles.”

For his part, Demers didn’t hesitate to say how he felt about the life-changing step he had taken. “I’m free now,” he said. “I’m liberated. I’ve been carrying this all my life. I succeeded, and I’m telling people ‘you’re capable of doing something in your life even if you have some big handicaps’.”