Adult Illiteracy in America - Who Are These People?
By Kathy Tally
It's been over forty years, but I can still remember the very first word I ever read. The markings were right there on the page. All I had to do was read them. That's all I had to do that day. With trepidation I approached the word and carefully and slowly sounded out the letter 'G' /g/. OK, so far so good. I was halfway there, only one more letter to go. The next letter was 'O'. It sounds like the letter itself /o/. g-o GO! Yaaaaay! Wahoo! I had broken the code! Where could this newfound skill possibly take me? As it turns out the ability to read can take you absolutely anywhere. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities, in the imagination as well as in navigating the world we live in. I never even considered that there were adults out there who didn't have this basic skill.
When I first heard that millions of adults in the nation couldn't read I thought it was some kind of bad pointless joke. Unfortunately it's no joke. Countless people are functionally illiterate; they can't read newspapers, medicine bottles, or even street signs. We all have life challenges, but just imagine if you had the added challenge of not being able to read. "So what" you may be thinking. "It's not my problem. It's their fault for not paying attention in school when they were kids." That's a quick and thoughtless answer, and I admit I might've had the same ignorant response at the time. But without knowing the circumstances, it's easy to dismiss these people as lazy. In fact, they have to work hard to hide their shortfall. You might even know someone with this challenge and not even realize it because they've developed exceptional coping skills.
Remember Fantasia from TV's American Idol? She was barely able to read and write, but nobody who was watching that season had a clue. She used coping skills, just like millions of others with the same predicament. Far from being stupid as they are sometimes perceived, these adults are actually good detectives. They'll look for clues like pictures and symbols, or they'll find a few words they know and infer the rest. They may use diversion tactics such as "Can you read this for me? I forgot my glasses." Or if they're asked to fill out a form, they'll say they have to leave and ask if they can bring the form back another time. Sometimes they're able to make a connection to the new information based on past experiences or they'll just use plain brute force memory skills.
Thankfully, adult literacy programs exist to address this societal problem. A quick search on the Internet will yield results for literacy programs across the nation (and beyond). Some learners in these programs are motivated because they want to read to their children. Others seek the prospect of a better job, getting a driver's license, or using a computer. Whatever their motivation, it's a testament to their inner strength to risk ridicule in order to achieve their goals and better their lives. Every person has their personal challenges and deserves respect.
The point of this article is to bring awareness to this issue and encourage you to have compassion when you hear about or meet someone who is functionally illiterate. Maybe you can let them know there are programs out there that can help them. Hey, nothing bad ever came from learning to read, except maybe back when I was in kindergarten learning to crack the reading code and came upon the word "PULL" on the fire alarm. Oh well. Hey, I did as I was told back then.
Kathy Tally volunteers as an Adult Literacy tutor in Silicon Valley. She loves to help adults knock down the illiteracy barrier, so they can move closer to their individual goals. Kathy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org