Illiteracy Is (Much Too) Widespread
Jokes about how hard it is to read a doctor’s handwriting are older than Hippocrates himself. Many think this is the only reason for someone to attend pharmacy school – to learn to decipher a doctor’s handwriting.
Actually, I’ve been told that mine is pretty easy to read – for a doctor. At times, I scribble handwritten notes rather than typing into ever-present-laptop or dictating. Later, when my husband is trying to decipher the notes to add to my blog or weekly newsletter he can come up with some new twists on the “unreadable doctor’s handwriting” jokes.
Obviously, I love a man with a sense of humor – even if it is at my expense.
So I’m not all that shocked when a total stranger – who hasn’t been exposed to my handwriting for twenty years – is puzzled by something I wrote.
One such age was a very pretty young lady, 28 years old and very well dressed and groomed. Her dark hair was meticulously styled, as were her brilliantly colored nails; the kind that give me “nail envy” – a nouveau-Freudian condition I just made up. It means, when I see someone’s meticulous nails, I tend to hide my hands in shame.
There was nothing really challenging about the patient — she needed a simple prescription for an antidepressant. Fortunately for her, she qualified for the “compassionate care” program most large drug companies offer, where people who can’t afford drugs and are uninsurable can get free prescription medicine.
This was good, because she had two small children – 18 months and 9 months old – and her husband didn’t earn very much, so they wouldn’t be burdened with scraping up money to keep Mommy functional.
I signed the coupon entitling her to walk into any pharmacy and walk out with her pills and presented it to her.
For an uncomfortable moment, she held it like it was an original copy of the Gutenberg Bible and scrunched up her eyes as if the illuminated gothic script blinded her. “You mean this is the right prescription? And they won’t charge me for this?”
The sheet had the words “free prescription coupon” printed across the top and the rest of the page was my handwritten prescription. A pre-printed block at the bottom instructed her to bring it in to the pharmacy of her choice and they would not charge money.
It took me a few seconds to realize she couldn’t read it – not read any of it. Not my hand-written part or the pre-printed part.
She was illiterate.
A friend had driven her to the clinic, perhaps because she couldn’t read enough to use the bus. She told me she had finished high school, and I didn’t doubt that she probably had. I knew the local school system probably could not have afforded to test her, let alone tutor her. And here she was, fighting back tears of shame.
This woman was already depressed, so made sure that she wouldn’t do anything drastic and that she would stay safe. She assured me that she was not going to kill herself over this one. Her little children needed her. Her husband read things for her, and it was hard for her but she got along.
I tried to find her therapist — no easy task since she had never admitted anything was wrong and so she had never been assigned one. This alone I would take care of.
She would not be a “medication only” patient any more. But it was already plain that getting her to follow through would be tough. There were enough “friends” to help her with the basics of child care. But I had opened a Pandora’s Box I absolutely refused to close.
There are large numbers of people who spend lots of energy getting through life without the ability to read well enough to function. The world is a frightening enough place anyway, and there is lots that can go wrong. But if the simplest traffic sign can look like it makes no sense, the world is a scarier place yet.
Sometimes people have serious brain problems or learning disabilities. It is simply easier to push someone through the educational system than to identify and correct their problems, especially in today’s wildly underfunded atmosphere.
Somehow, this has become the province of investigative reporters. The problem is complex. There seems little doubt that the genesis of the problem would be best isolated in the school systems. After all, this is where most people learn to read. Of course, there are parents who read to children, children who identify the “code” of letters early on and break it. I suspect this is a genetic ability, for I had it early on, as did my brother of blessed memory.
For me it has been the key to life. If I did not have this first, I would not have read my way through a house laden with books, and a couple of libraries. My husband did something similar, and we have always shared on this level, always. Not just the joy of novels, which has become quite rare for me, as I plunge through non-fiction, particularly in my field, about which I am wildly passionate.
My ability and love of reading is how I first got, and how I maintain my edge. The cost of illiteracy is great for not just an individual. Fear, uncertainty, dependency on others are just a few of the immediate results. The cost of illiteracy is great for a whole society. Employability is a problem, for it is not just the lack of jobs, but who can do the ones we have if it is necessary to read to do them?
This is an article that speaks a little bit towards the extent and ramifications of the problem. Since a lot of the people who can’t read are indigent, it makes sense to send them to free programs. They abound, but getting people to supersede their own sense of shame and actually go to them is sometimes tough. My patient did not particularly want to, citing troubles getting a babysitter. A therapist helped find a free library program, staffed by volunteers, that could help, even with babysitting.
Last I heard, when I had already left the institution, the therapist was still trying to get the patient to show up.
There are lots of basic literacy programs around, many based in residential facilities or religious facilities. My concern is that they be as “clean” as possible in intent, not teaching people associated agendas, but somehow giving them the one tool they really need. I will admit to having had a preference for the library-based. Perhaps a little because of my own love of libraries. Also because there is a notion, at least to me, of minimized stigma. I mean, who can tell if someone is going to a library to read or to learn to read?
California has many library-based programs. This is a good link to click because it includes video and defines what illiteracy is not. It is not the inability to speak English. I’m not saying that is not a problem — it is simply not THIS problem.
Mostly everyone with this problem known to me can muddle through television, even if they are reduced to counting the clicks on a remote. This is a national problem, affecting all of America. If anyone asked me (and nobody did) it is more pressing as problems go than a lot of alleged public health or welfare problems. People who learn to read can generally learn to make their own basic life decisions. In the nineties we spoke easily of empowerment on a political level. On a personal level, I know no more powerful way to empower a previously unempowered individual than reading lessons.
In closing, I must reminisce about one therapist I knew who SHOULD have had bad handwriting because his advice was so bad that his clients would have been better off not reading it.
I remember a couple in marital therapy with him, trying to save their relationship. Without saying a word, the therapist wrote on a scrap of paper and handed it to them. It read – “BE NICE TO ONE ANOTHER.”
Was THAT worth the hourly rate they were paying?
Later on, the wife came back alone – the previous advice obviously not doing the job. Again the therapist wrote on a scrap of paper and handed it to her.
It read – “DIVORCE THE BASTARD.”
For this, the therapist had gone to school and earned a PhD?