California immigrants face challenges due to low English literacy when reading medicine labels

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Approximately nine years back, Analilia Gutierrez welcomed her son into the world, a micro preemie requiring specialized care.

Back then, Gutierrez, an immigrant originating from Mexico, faced significant language barriers, as she had limited English proficiency. Dealing with health forms and managing her son’s medical needs presented overwhelming challenges. Even with interpreters, misinterpretations sometimes arose.

“There were myriad obstacles,” shared Gutierrez, a resident in Tulare, located in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an estimated 28% of Californian adults exhibit low literacy skills in English, hindering tasks beyond basic form completion or simple text comprehension. California’s literacy rate ranks second lowest among states, only better than New Mexico, where a 29% estimated rate prevails.

The U.S.-administered survey was solely conducted in English, thereby posing greater challenges for immigrants who may struggle with a non-native language. In California, 19% of adults report limited English proficiency (“less than very well”), as per the 2022 American Community Survey findings.

Inadequate English literacy not only complicates daily life but can also pose serious risks.

Dr. Olga Meave, CEO of Clinica Sierra Vista in the Central San Joaquin Valley, frequently encounters patients grappling with reading difficulties irrespective of the language. From patients unable to sign their own names to those misinterpreting medication instructions leading to medical emergencies, the ramifications of low literacy are profound.

The prevalence of low literacy is particularly acute in agricultural regions like the Central San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast, where many rely on immigrant labor with minimal formal education. In counties such as Imperial, Tulare, Merced, Madera, Kings, and Monterey, over 40% of residents face challenges with basic English literacy.

However, signs of literacy struggles permeate all California communities, manifesting as barriers to employment and career growth, hindrances in business transactions, and even disproportionate inmate populations with literacy issues. Additionally, parents may find themselves unable to assist their children with schoolwork or bedtime reading.

California leads the nation in immigrant population, with over a third of adults above 25 being immigrants, predominantly from Mexico and Latin American countries. This demographic shift not only impacts the workforce but also underscores the diverse educational backgrounds immigrants bring to the state.

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