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Editorial: Unscrabling the written word

This week’s Scrabble Scramble hosted by the Rowan County Literacy Council centered around a a game of words. Ironically, the event raised funds to help people for whom the written word may look like nothing more than scrambled letters.
For that, the council deserves community support year-round.
Those who cannot read are invisible in our society, yet they are 32 million strong, according to the U.S. Education Department. That’s about 14 percent of Americans. They remain hidden to the “reading” population because they want it that way. Not wanting to seem dumb or backward, they learn to bluff their way through life, pretending to read.
Illiteracy is commonly thought of as a great hindrance to employment, and it is. But it also can be dangerous to a person’s health. Those who cannot read well may be intimidated by medical forms and therefore delay treatment. They cannot understand printed material that a doctor might give them. A study by the American Medical Association Foundation found some extreme consequences of illiteracy ó a woman who signed a form agreeing to a hysterectomy but didn’t understand what it meant, and a patient who became ill after taking her medication improperly. “I just didn’t have the nerve to ask them and I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t read,” she later said.
For immigrants who have not yet mastered English, that incomprehension is compounded by cultural differences. They can become isolated and fearful of making mistakes. And they can put themselves in danger without realizing it. An unforgettable case: the elderly Hispanic man who drowned in High Rock Lake several years ago trying to rescue his grandchild, who also drowned. The “Danger: No Swimming” signs were indecipherable to them.
The Literacy Council, a United Way agency, has been hit by the recession just as everyone else has. But it is not a high-budget organization, and its most valuable asset is priceless: volunteer tutors. That’s a role people who find themselves with time on their hands might consider. It doesn’t cost anything for people to become literacy tutors; they just have to be rich in compassion and patience.

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