By Debbie Burke
In the US, 130 million adults read below sixth grade level.
But, according to the US Department of Education, 54% of people ages 16-74 fall into that category.
Most writers take reading for granted, as automatic and effortless as breathing.
I certainly did…until I couldn’t.
Recently I had cataract surgeries in both eyes, three weeks apart. Those three weeks of limbo slapped me in the face with the realization how much I depended on reading just to get through the day.
Because of myopia, I’ve worn glasses since sixth grade. Over time, my nearsightedness worsened to the point where I couldn’t even see the big E on the eye chart.
True story: without glasses, I once mistook a dark brown house for a UPS truck.
For the past couple of years, increasingly strong prescriptions could no longer fix the problem. Near or far, my world was blurry.
Hence, cataract surgery was the only option.
Ten minutes under the scalpel implanted a new lens that almost instantly corrected vision in the left eye to 20-20.
An absolute miracle!
But my right eye was still 20-800. Objects were clear up to about four inches away, then faded in fog.
My wonderful 20-20 left eye could see hundreds of feet away but not up close.
I was cockeyed. (Some people say that’s nothing new!)
The optician tried popping out the left lens in my glasses but that turned out to be as disorienting as five shots of tequila.
For computer work and reading, I was non-operational.
After surgery, physical restrictions included no bending over, lifting, or strenuous activity.
No vacuuming? No problem!
But that also halted my regular exercises like gardening, Zumba, and air boxing. Thankfully, walking was okay.
That made me realize reading and/or writing normally occupied 12-14 hours of each day. How could I get any work done?
There are free-standing magnifiers for computer screens but $100+ was too much of an investment for three weeks’ of use. Dollar Store readers helped a bit but soon caused eyestrain.
A pirate patch and magnifying glass worked marginally but awkwardly.
This would have been the perfect opportunity to try audiobooks…except I couldn’t read how to download them.
From across the room, I could clearly see the spines of books on my TBR pile but I couldn’t read the insides.
Driving was allowed but, when I took the car for service, I couldn’t read the repair list and invoice. The bank’s ATM screen was a blur. So were price stickers on supermarket shelves—probably just as well not to see how much they’d gone up since the week before!
The list goes on and on: product labels, instructions, on/off switches for appliances, texts on the phone, cable connections like audio, video, auxiliary.
I couldn’t even read the directions on the various bottles of eyedrops I had to use multiple times each day.
Most every task in life required reading.
How does someone who can’t read or reads at a low level navigate through today’s world?
According to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy:
To read a driver’s license manual, you need to have a sixth-grade reading level. To hold a job as a cook: seventh-grade level. Directions on an aspirin bottle: eighth-grade level. Understanding frozen TV dinner instructions or to get a job as a mechanic or supply clerk: ninth-grade level. Newspapers: high school level. Apartment lease: college.
Let’s not even talk about filling out a tax return.
The Foundation’s 2021 report reveals staggering statistics that cause economic, social, and health deficits.
The U.S. could be losing up to $2.2 trillion—or 10% of GDP—in economic growth due to low adult literacy rates.
- The existing gap in digital literacy skills could cause 76% of Black individuals and 62% of Hispanic individuals to be shut out or under-prepared for 86% of jobs in the U.S. by 2045.
- Low-literate adults are four times more likely than others to report low levels of health, requiring hospitalization and using emergency services at significantly higher rates.
Per the Governors’ Early Literacy Foundation:
Illiteracy and crime are connected. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure. Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.”
This recent experience made me appreciate that reading is a luxury not everyone has access to. People who can’t read are doomed to a life of struggle and frustration.
Remember Henry Bemis from The Twilight Zone? He found himself in a post-apocalyptic world where he rejoiced in the newfound luxury of unlimited reading…until his glasses broke.
Unlike poor Henry, my inability to read only lasted three weeks and ended with a miracle of new vision.
My world no longer looks like an Impressionist painting. I can see individual leaves on trees, blades of grass, street signs (oh, that’s where I was supposed to turn).
The gift of improved sight is incredible.
But the gift of being able to read again runs a close second.
Thanks to Kay DiBianca who introduced me to the worthy nonprofit Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
TKZers: How would your life change if you couldn’t read? What is your most important reason for reading?
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