Martijn Keizer has made it his mission to improve communication with functionally illiterate people who are in debt. To this end, he and Syncasso Gerechtsdeurwaarders (bailiffs), Kredietbank Nederland (credit bank) and Stichting Lezen & Schrijven (Reading & Writing Foundation) have compiled an analysis of functional illiteracy among debtors. His ‘Reading ≠ understanding’ project was financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment.
Since July, Kredietbank Nederland staff have been testing new clients with what is referred to as a ‘language gauge’ at every intake interview. Under Keizer’s supervision, clients of Syncasso bailiffs have undergone the same tests during home visits. ‘This enabled us to work out how many functionally illiterate people these organizations deal with’, says Keizer. ‘Initial results indicate that around half of the participants are functionally illiterate. This is disproportionate compared with an average sample from the Dutch population. The national figure for functional illiteracy is one in six.’
These figures are hugely important to all parties dealing with debtors, claims Keizer. If so many people with debts have problems reading and writing, it would be sensible to change the way organizations approach them. ‘The debt counselling sector is very careful about using simple language in its letters and e-mails. But this still isn’t enough for someone who is semi-literate. This group is not particularly self-reliant’, says Keizer.
The ultimate aim of the project is to find a more effective way of communicating with functionally illiterate people in debt counselling and debt collection procedures. ‘We ask the people deemed “functionally illiterate” according to the language gauge to tell us what they think about our suggestions for improvement. We could introduce very simple informative leaflets to accompany the official letters from the bailiffs, for example. Or perhaps films would be a better way of reaching this group, or even good old-fashioned home visits. We know that more people apply for debt counselling if we contact them through district teams than if we send written invitations.’
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