“Can you read?”

I wish I was joking. But someone really asked me that. “Can you read?” results in a polite smile, still not removing my shades, and “of course”. The person was professional and friendly, not mean, and I know they meant in specific if I would be able to get the info from a print material they had. Still… it felt bizarre. “Can you read?” (of course… and also without my eyes or hands if it needs)

It’s nearly as weird as the “can you use email?” or the wonderings of how me or “someone like you” or “you people” can use the social medias. I don’t fortunately the can you use email that often any more, also because of not volunteering to give people my email (or phone number for that matter).

I don’t get mad of well meaning questions. Nothing good will come of that. But it’s also so weird how reading is just one of those things we take for granted. Reading print was always big for me. I have no memories from a time before I was able to read. Now the formats I can read in are maybe a bit different, but I can’t imagine not being able to read. When the life throws you in the dark, learn to read your dots, learn to use your ears. So you never have to rely on others having to read for you in a way.

But there are still so many people without literacy skills. I don’t mean the 80-90% of the visually impaired population without braille skills. Just plain illiteracy? Earlier this week an audiobook reader whose name I don’t remember but whose voice I recognize told me about a Mexican lady she was trying to teach to read for over a year. The lady had never gone to school, so she couldn’t even read Spanish. She tried to help her learn English and Spanish, but gave up. Some weird internal block. Maybe the lady had her mind set on reading being too difficult or impossible for her and that’s it? Sad. And the practical AT geek in me sees a window to apply some tech solution here. If you can’t read… let’s learn text to speech, speech to text, dictation, screenreaders etc. It shouldn’t be a big deal using those anyway. So who cares if you use siri or voiceover or nvda because you can’t see, are dyslexic, have low vision, other issues, or simply because you never learned to read? Reading something with VoiceDream could get you to practice some word recognition and spelling too while you listen.

And there’s one more big thing for the illiteracy. The characters and alphabets. While in most Western languages the alphabet is simple, based in Latin characters, the same can’t be said about all the languages. Chinese is immensely dense, and the letters are minuscule. I could have cat sized Chinese letters, and still not learn them. Or try any Asian language with CCTV sized large print and in 3D, and the same. Arabic, hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Japanese… my eyes wouldn’t know how to decipher anything. If there is a giant letter somewhere and it looks garbled, my brain can fix it to be a letter in Latin alphabet. This should not be too difficult an idea to grasp. If your eyes are good, you see a clean picture, with good enough resolution. When your eyes are less optimal, sometimes the best image looks like a dark garbled blurry mess thru a marble. Or some blurry something in a Turkish sauna kind of resolution. So good bye traditional print based literacy options for many languages.

One of my favorite shirts has some Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. I can’t read it, but the shirt came with a card explaining what is written on it. If only I remembered where I put it…


2 thoughts on ““Can you read?””

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I’m am really into language and literacy and studied it in grad school. Illiteracy is an issue that I feel a lot of people don’t really think about these days. But it’s all around, really. It’s also can be more complex than just a total inability to read and write. We also have those who are functually literate and functionally illiterate. I liked your suggestions for helping erase illiteracy though text to speech, speech to text, and screenreaders. I think they could be valuable tools for helping people learn to read. 🙂


    1. Oh, literacy definitely has a whole spectrum of skills and possibilities. It just feels so weird to imagine what the world would be without any literacy skills. Too much relying in others in every little thing. And difficult to imagine being on the barely functional side of literacy :-/
      The technology certainly can (and should) be used to help improve people’s literacy.
      Then again… looking forward to learning some Japanese, to both listen and speak. Because it will be so awesome to have to ask for help with menus. “Excuse me… I can’t read your print. Can you tell me about the menu?” (assuming some apps wouldn’t be able to read the menus by the time I’ll have learned some and will eventually visit Japan).

      Liked by 1 person

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