A woman who was branded a ‘dunce’ at school and hid her illiteracy all her life is finally learning to read – at the age of 87.
Retired factory worker Ursula Shepherd says her teachers in the 1930s “didn’t care” if she was educated.
The pensioner, who has learning difficulties, was branded a ‘dunce’ by classmates and left school at the age of 15 unable to read or write.
She hid her illiteracy throughout her working life and at home relied on others to write her cheques, read her utility bills and translate road signs.
In almost nine decades Ursula has never voted, borrowed a library book, read a newspaper, written a letter or filled in a form.
But last Autumn, Ursula told her live-in carer that she wanted to learn to read and started attending weekly sessions at Learn Devon, her local education centre.
She began by sounding out simple words like cat, bag and run and is now in the process of working out how to decipher full sentences.
Eventually, she hopes to read love stories, take out a library book and understand the instructions that come with her knitting patterns.
And once she has mastered the basics of reading she plans to learn how to write for the first time in her life.
Ursula, of Exmouth, Devon, said: “It feels marvellous. I’m so happy. I think it’s lovely. Everybody should be able to read.
“When I was at school the teachers didn’t care. I didn’t have any help from them.
“I would sit with a girl and she was reading but I couldn’t read, so when she turned the pages I turned my page over because I didn’t understand.
“I felt sad because I always wanted to read, you see, and they just put me in the corner. I felt like I missed out.
“If I had opened up a book last year I wouldn’t have understood any of the words, but now I can read quite a bit.
“I know my alphabet but I have trouble with my ‘b’s and ‘d’s, so I say ‘b’ for ‘belly’ and ‘d’ for ‘dog’. My teacher is teaching me to split the words up.”
“I would like to read love stories,” she added.
“I went to the library in Taunton once, many many years ago, and I said, ‘Oh, I wish I could read.’ I just loved the people and all the books.
“When I can read properly, I want to go to the library and choose my own books.
“I hope I can inspire other people to learn to read. People say they’re too embarrassed but I would love to help them.
“I’m very much enjoying it so far. It’s never too late.”
Ursula was born in Wiveliscombe in deepest Somerset in October 1929.
She lived with mum Ada and dad Arthur, a painter and decorator, and went to the village school during WWII with big sister Phyllis, who was able to read.
In the years that followed, she went on to work in an egg factory and a beer factory, packing eggs and screwing the lids on bottles, before caring for her parents.
She has never married or had children and has always lived in a care setting or with family members who would handle bills and other everyday reading tasks.
The sprightly octogenarian, who knits, dances and sings in her spare time, now lives with carer Lesley Waller as part of Devon and Cornwall’s Shared Lives scheme.
Lesley, 60, a gran-of-four who lives with husband Chris, 63, and cares for two other vulnerable adults, said: “I’m full of admiration for Ursula.
“At times it has been a struggle but she really perseveres and she has come on in leaps and bounds. She really enjoys it.”
She said Ursula was treated as a ‘dunce’ at school and added: “Years ago people with learning difficulties weren’t really diagnosed or helped.
“It’s a shame her parents didn’t go down to the school but perhaps they just didn’t do that in the 1930s. I think she felt she missed out.
“Now she lives life to the full. Last year she went on an aeroplane for the first time and she wants to skydive when she’s 90.
“She’s a very happy person and she’s always dancing and singing. She’s just wonderful, and what she’s doing is remarkable. She’s a fantastic lady.”
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