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Masters of Disguise

Have you ever met someone and knew they were struggling in life with low literacy skills?

You probably don’t think that you have. Yet 36 million adults are estimated to have less-than-basic literacy skills, while almost 30% of adults have numeracy skills that max out at counting and basic arithmetic.

So how is it possible that so many millions of Americans have such low literacy and yet no one sees it?

The answer is that you likely have looked into the face of low literacy and just didn’t know it.

“Low literacy adults are masters of disguise,” wrote ProLiteracy President and CEO Kevin Morgan during a recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session on adult literacy. “You can work with someone, know a family member or friend and never suspect they have low literacy skills.”

He’s absolutely right. Perhaps the reason people often have a hard time realizing the extent of the adult literacy problem in America is that we don’t see it — or, at least, we don’t think we see it.

Low literacy isn’t physically obvious, and from a lifetime of dealing with it, adults adapt to hide it. They develop tactics to divert attention away from their struggle and to cover up their inability to read well, or read at all. They may enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member to read and fill out forms for them, or they may recognize things by sight and iconography instead of by word. Having low literacy doesn’t mean a person isn’t smart, and their ability to employ such tactics speaks to how resourceful they are.

Low adult literacy is also not a problem we, as a society, really look for. How often do you meet an adult and ask yourself if they know how to write a sentence or multiply numbers? We make assumptions that adults already know how to read and write proficiently, and easily accept the disguise put on by low-literate adults.

But to the tens of millions of low-literate adults, their struggle is anything but invisible.

We’ve probably all met a low-literate adult. They are our family members, our coworkers, even our teachers. When they reach out for help — because it’s truly never too late to gain vital literacy skills — we need to be there to reach back.

You can be the helping hand low-literate adults reach for by volunteering or making a donation to Seeds of Literacy.