The NALS study defined literacy as "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential" (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993, p. 2). Three scales were identified:
Document literacy -- the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in materials that include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs; for example, locating a particular intersection on a street map, using a schedule to choose the appropriate bus, or entering information on an application form.
Quantitative literacy -- the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials; for example, balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest from a loan advertisement.(pp. 3-4)
These scales were the basis for the 165 tasks in the total survey. Each respondent was asked during a personal interview to complete one booklet containing tasks estimated to require a total of 45 minutes to complete. Each participant was asked to complete a number of tasks related to each literacy area, thus completing a subset of the total set of literacy tasks. Sampling procedures were used to ensure that all tasks were administered to a nationally representative sample. During the part of the interview in which background and personal information were obtained, respondents were also asked to describe any illnesses and disabilities. Four questions were used to identify individuals with "physical, mental, or other health conditions":
One question asked respondents whether they had a physical, mental, or other health condition that kept them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities. Two other questions asked whether they had visual or hearing difficulties. Finally, respondents were asked whether they had a learning disability, any mental or emotional condition, mental retardation, a speech disability, a physical disability, a long-term illness (for six months or more), or any other health impairment. Respondents were permitted to report each type of disability or condition they had. (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, Kolstad, 1993, p. 42.)The NALS report included the results of the literacy assessment of individuals in ten self-reported disability condition categories. The following percentages of respondents reported that they had various conditions: physical disability (9 percent), long-term illness (8 percent), visual difficulty (7 percent), hearing difficulty (7 percent), other health impairment (6 percent), learning disability (3 percent), mental or emotional condition (2 percent), speech disability (1 percent), and mental retardation (< 1 percent). Overall, these individuals with disabilities were more likely than people without disabilities who participated in the survey to perform at the lowest literacy levels. The first NALS report described this lower performance of individuals with various disabilities and conditions in the excerpts below.
However, Kirsch et al., also reported that within nearly every disability group, in each literacy category (prose, document, quantitative) there are some individuals with disabilities who perform at levels 4 and 5, the top two levels of literacy reached by about 20 percent of the 13,600 individuals in the total sample. The percentages of individuals in these two levels within each condition or disability are shown in table 4.6.
Literacy Scale Disability/Condition Prose Document Quantitative ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Physical, mental, or other health 6 6 7 Visual difficulty 5 6 6 Hearing difficulty 10 9 13 Learning disability 5 5 5 Mental/emotional condition 10 10 10 Mental retardation 4 3 1 Speech disability 7 6 7 Physical disability 7 6 8 Long-term illness 8 7 10 Other health impairment 8 7 11Source: Data are from Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad (1993, p. 44).
The NALS report data are among the first available from a national education survey that includes data about people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the data related to people with disabilities have some major limitations. First, relying on self-reports can result in underestimation of the incidence of certain disabilities in the sample. For example, learning disabilities would probably be underreported by adults who left the school system before schools became widely aware of such disabilities and how to diagnose them. Also, the stigma sometimes still associated with disabilities such as mental retardation or emotional disturbance may discourage respondents from reporting the condition. Second, self-reports can also result in overestimation of some disabilities. Third, the lack of accommodations that might have enabled some people to better accomplish some assessment tasks may also have affected the results. For example, people with visual difficulties might have been at a disadvantage because print may not have been large enough for them to see accurately.