Rugby League's Ian Roberts On His Struggle With Illiteracy

Rugby League Great Ian Roberts On His Long-Time Struggle With Illiteracy

Roberts’ story is a personal triumph. He got the help he needed in the most unexpected way.

Rugby league great Ian Roberts has endured plenty of knocks during his time on and off the field. He represented Australia in 14 Tests and threw himself into five brutal State of Origin series while turning out for three clubs over a career spanning 13 years. He was also the first, and so far only, professional Australian rugby league player to come out as gay (in 1995), resulting in severe verbal and sometimes physical abuse. But few people know about his long-time struggle with illiteracy, which he says wielded some of the hardest blows of all.

Imagine touching down in a foreign airport and being thrust a wad of immigration forms to fill out, but all you see is a swarm of unintelligible hieroglyphics.

This was the frequent experience of Ian Roberts, rugby league hard man and legend (now an actor), who regularly chased a football around the world.

“Reading was like this secret code that I could never tap into… I could never decipher it,” Roberts explains from his Sydney home, where he’s based while filming the latest Mad Max instalment, Furiosa (due out next year). “Going through immigration was always such an awful experience. Knowing that when you land, Oh my God – there’s forms. I’m going to have to ask someone what this stuff is or pretend I don’t speak good English or ask them to spell words. You pick up all these coping mechanisms, but you feel fraudulent.”  

Roberts, now 57, says he repeated his first year of school and left high school at the end of Year 10, having muddled his way through with undiagnosed dyslexia.

“When I went to school, dyslexia wasn’t a thing,” he says. “I was the kid in the class who, when the teacher asked me to stand up and read from a book, I’d make out that I was upset about something else and storm out. I felt this
incredible shame.”

Going blank: When words mean nothing, the game of life is too hard on your mental wellbeing.

These feelings were shelved when his football career took off, though Roberts admits they did rear their head from time to time, and there are memories that still make him cringe.

“I was doing an advertisement when I joined Super League in 1995, and we had to talk to camera using a teleprompter. It was one of those moments when I thought, Oh God, if the world could just swallow me up right now. Within minutes of me trying to do it, everyone in that room knew that I couldn’t read or write.”

But in his struggles with the written word, Roberts is far from alone. According to the Australian parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy (Don’t take it as read – Inquiry into adult literacy and its importance, 2022), one in five adult Australians has low literacy and/or numeracy. This means that millions of Australian men lack the skills to meet the demands of work and life.

The Reading Writing Hotline, Australia’s national literacy referral and advisory service, reported that their typical caller is an Australian-born male, aged 25-44, who left school before Year 10. 

Contrary to popular thinking, then, it’s not only immigrants who need assistance with their English literacy; it’s many Aussie blokes, too.

Research into adult illiteracy over many years has tended to paint a bleak picture of the life and prospects of people for whom written words may as well be in an alien language. Commonly, people who can’t read and write struggle to find satisfying employment, deal constantly with feelings of shame and inadequacy, have lower-than-average self-esteem and work hard to avoid situations in which their illiteracy may be exposed, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation – and, in time, depression. For an unforgettable take on the potential consequences of adult illiteracy, read the Ruth Rendell novel Judgement in Stone.     

By comparison, Roberts’ story is a personal triumph. He got the help he needed in the most unexpected way.

For murray, the inability to read to his children was the catalyst for change.

A friend in deed 

After retiring from professional rugby league in his mid-30s, Roberts turned to acting, and began taking classes at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with acting coach Kevin Jackson. But in the very first class, Jackson asked Roberts to cold-read a script, and the ex footballer had to confess.

“Kevin said to me, ‘Oh, you can’t read? That’s probably because you’re dyslexic. That’s cool, we’ll tape it, and you can listen to it and learn it that way’. He was so nonchalant about it, and it was a real turning point in my life. It was the first time that in a situation like that, I didn’t feel dumb.”

It was during his time at NIDA, with the help of Jackson and other teachers, that Roberts studied phonetics and taught himself to read.

Experts in the field like Honorary Professor Barry Golding, who researches adult learning at the Federation University Australia, says that it’s crucial that low levels of literacy be addressed, to ensure all Australians can enjoy their basic economic, social, legal and political rights.

“For many Australians, not having access to the learning they need to flourish, to stay connected in work and life, poses serious future risks to individuals, their families, the community, democracy and the economy,” he says.

It wasn’t being gay in a male bastion That most troubled Roberts; it was his illiteracy.

Golding also points out that literacy deficits impact heavily on career progression. This was certainly the case for Brendan Murray, a Trawlwoolway man from Lutruwita in Tasmania.

Murray’s mother was one of the Stolen Generations and the trauma she experienced took a toll on her mental health. This meant that Murray changed schools frequently, spent time in foster care and quickly slipped through the cracks of the education system.

By the time he left school in Year 10, Murray was unable to read and write adequately, but picked up odd jobs that didn’t require those skills, including landscaping and delivery driving. 

“I wasn’t confident in applying for jobs, and I thought I’d be looked down upon, so it was easier just to avoid places where my lack of literacy might be exposed,” Murray says.

But when he became a young stay-at-home dad at 19, Murray’s inability to read became a source of shame, especially when he saw himself reflected in the eyes of his two children.

“When my little daughter would walk up to me in her pyjamas and hand me a book to sit and read with her, I remember sweating and being embarrassed because I couldn’t comprehensively read that story to her.” 

Fast forward a few decades, and Murray, now 54, works as the Aboriginal Community Engagement Officer at the University of Tasmania. He’s also studying a Bachelor of History, and reads for pleasure.

Action plan 

The pivotal moment for Murray came in his mid-20s, after his first marriage broke down and his children were both in school. No longer needing to be a stay-at-home dad, he found himself at the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES, now Centrelink), enquiring about work.

“A beautiful lady called Jane at the CES was helping me find a job and gave me the application form. I wrote my name down, but that was about all I could do. I felt the old fight-or-flight instinct kick in, but this time I didn’t run.

“Jane gulped and she looked at me and said, ‘You’re having a bit of difficulty there’.”

Over the next few weeks, Jane kept in touch with Murray and suggested he try adult education at TAFE. Although reticent, Murray was eventually convinced and enrolled in a first-rate literacy and numeracy course. 

“It wasn’t easy. I cried my eyes out [on the first day] and felt a lot of self-loathing,” Murray recalls. “But I stuck at it and went back the next day and the next. Once I felt confident in reading, I didn’t have to hide anymore. I could stand alone now, and it made me feel better around my children.”

Illiteracy affects every generation, with the 2022 NAPLAN results revealing that more than 13 per cent of Year 9 boys in Australia are falling short of the national minimum standard for reading.  

“If you’re uncomfortable treading water, there are so many ways to move forward”

Word perfect 

So, what can be done when childhood schooling has failed? Donald Feaver, co-founder of E2, an online platform offering English remediation courses for all ages and abilities, says further education is key. 

“The research tells us we need to educate people to a certain level and then they can pick it up and run with it from there,” Feaver says.

“There’s a critical point in English skill proficiency and acquisition. We need to get learners up and over that hurdle and then it opens the doors… things become more accessible, and if they continue reading and practising, they will get better and better.” 

Roberts agrees that education is the way forward and says online courses that offer anonymity for those feeling the stigma associated with limited literacy can be a good place to start.

“If you’re uncomfortable treading water, there are services and people out there that can help. There are so many ways to move forward, and to better yourself,” Roberts says. 

He wants to make something clear.

“People would always think that being gay would be the thing that I would feel most uncomfortable about. But I’ve never had any shame about being same-sex attracted my whole life. 

“The thing that was always the most unpleasant for me was the shame around being unable to read and write and spell. But I did learn to read. I mean, I’m no poet. I’m no Shakespeare. But I’m currently writing a screenplay. It has been a whole reawakening for me.”  

How to improve your literacy

Everyone can improve their command of English – and it needn’t involve swallowing a dictionary.

Read to your children

Kids’ books contain simpler language and make use of repetition and patterns – all helpful for improving reading ability. Turn on the subtitles when watching movies or TV shows.

Speak to your GP

It’s never too late to investigate the cause of problem literacy. A diagnosis, such as dyslexia, means you can implement specific  strategies to start changing your life for
the better.

Ring the Reading and Writing Hotline

Dial 1300 655 506 and ask about courses or support groups in your area. Contact with people going through the same experience can help turn things around.

Try an online course

Like, for example, E2 Many courses can be completed from the privacy of your home – and even from the convenience of your laptop. The point is to get on the front foot with this.

Words: Cath Johnsen

Cath Johnsen is an Australian freelance writer, based in Brisbane. She graduated from the Queensland University of Technology with a Bachelor of Business (Communication) and a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism), both with distinction. Cath also holds a Certificate in Professional Editing and Proofreading from the Australian College of Journalism.

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