| 2.9°C Dublin

My life started at 39 -- when I finally sat my Leaving Cert

They say life begins at 40, but for Michael Power it happened at 39, when he finally sat his Leaving Certificate.

Having left school aged just 16, the father of two from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, was well into his thirties by the time he learnt to read and write. Now he has dedicated his life to helping those with learning difficulties and is focused on highlighting how a lack of literacy can put health at risk.

"Everyone takes for granted their ability to read and write," says Michael. "But they don't realise how lucky they are. I used to prefer to stay at home rather than go to the doctor's because you had to fill out a form."

Remarkably, four out of 10 people in Ireland have inadequate or problematic health literacy, according to the European Health Literacy Survey.

While 17pc have difficulty understanding leaflets accompanying their medicine, 20pc say they would find it difficult to understand what to do in the case of a medical emergency.

When his daughter Michelle fell seriously ill with kidney difficulties aged just one, a condition that plagued her all her life, Michael felt isolated and unable to help as he could not understand the terms being used by the medics.

"I remember when I was talking to doctors I would be bamboozled with the language they were using," says Michael. "I would be afraid to ask what they meant because I thought they would think that I was an eejit."

Michael had always tried to hide the fact he could not read and write. Being labelled a "slow learner" as a child haunted him throughout his adult life.

"I remember trying to write an essay with a Christian Brother looking over my shoulder," he says. "Before I knew what was happening I was suddenly on the ground with blood coming out of my ear."

Michael worked for 20 years as a crane operator in a glass factory.

"Believe it or not, I became a shop steward," he says. "So I made sure I would nominate someone to take notes at meetings to avoid having to write."

However, his deficiency soon caught up with him when there was an accident in work and he was asked to fill in a report.

"The sweat was out through me. I was terrified," he says. "I couldn't do it. I went to HR and they helped me out."

But it was his family rather than his career that made Michael determined to finally learn to read and write.

"The turning point was when I had children," he says. "I remember the children asking me to read them a bedtime story. They would ask me why I kept stopping and starting so in the end I would just make up stories for them."

With the support of his wife Mary, Michael joined a VEC literacy scheme in Roscrea for one-to-one reading and writing lessons for six months and made steady progress.

The following year, Michael's growing confidence saw him enrol in a small literacy class where he found huge comfort in support from his fellow students.

However, even though he had made solid progress, Michael still experienced the stigma of his poor schooling.

"When I got my redundancy package, the biggest worry was what I was going to do," he says. "It was a golden opportunity but I had no qualifications and I didn't even have a CV."

Michael and his wife decided he would go back to school to continue his education by sitting his Junior and Leaving Certificates.

'It was a rollercoaster the first month and I was terrified of going back into a school environment," he says. "It wasn't easy, but it was a new beginning in life for me.

"I was very worried about sitting the English paper. My spelling was still not so good and I always wasted too much time trying to think of the words that I could spell.

"Then my teacher told me that no matter how bad my spelling was I could only lose 10pc for bad spelling. This really helped me go into the exam."

With the exams completed, Michael dreaded finding out how he had done.

"I was over the moon when I found out I had passed, and when I got a C in English that was just the icing on the cake.

"I will always remember when my daughter tapped me on the shoulder and asked, 'Daddy, can you help me with my maths homework?' I was finally able to help her. This is what I went back to school for."

While Michael was studying he also worked part-time with young adults with intellectual disability. So when the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) was seeking student representatives for its National Executive, Michael's name was put forward.

"I was a bit nervous when they picked me," he says, "but I got great support from the other members. I enjoyed giving them my views as someone who had been through the system."

His insight proved so valuable that in 2007 he was asked if he would take on the role of chairman of NALA.

"It made me understand that if you are given the chance to learn, you'll realise that you are capable of so much more," says Michael.

Even though his four-year term as chairman of NALA came to an end last year, he remains a student representative and has become a champion for the annual Crystal Clear Health Literacy Awards.

The fifth annual Crystal Clear MSD Health Literacy Awards are open to anyone improving health literacy by making information and services more accessible to patients. Closing date for entries is Friday January 27. For more information visit www.healthliteracy.ie. Those with reading and writing difficulties can call Freefone 1800 20 20 65 (confidential service) to arrange a one-to-one with a tutor or find out the local adult learning centre in your area.

Irish Independent