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Not everyone reads

I EXAMINED a 70-year old woman at the Eye Clinic today, and she taught me an important lesson: not everyone can read.

You see, the standard five-point eye exam begins with the test for visual acuity: the patient is asked to read a Snellen chart. The smaller the letter the patient can read, the higher the score.

During my time with her, she couldn't follow my instructions, as if I were speaking Greek and she Swahili. "Basahin niyo po ang pinakamalaking letra," I said, to which she always replied, "Hindi ko mabasa." I recorded her visual acuity for both eyes as 7/200, which means she can read from 7 feet what a normal person can read from 200 feet. She had really bad eyesight.

She was called into the examining room, where more advanced instruments were located. Minutes later a resident went out, holding her chart, demanding to know the name of the intern who examined the old lady. His tone was so angry and irritated that my heart skipped a beat—the way you know you've done something wrong but you can't pinpoint the details.

I said I was the one who wrote the findings down.

"Tinanong mo ba siya kung marunong siyang magbasa?" the resident asked.

"Nababasa niya po ang letter "E" sabi niya," I said.

"Tanungin mo siya kung marunong siyang magbasa," the resident suggested.

I was ashamed of myself—I had missed that possibility entirely! True enough, the old woman, who did not go to school at all, did not recognize letters and was only familiar—of all the letters mankind has included in the alphabet—with the letter E, which happened to be the biggest one in the Snellen chart. She had not had the opportunity to receive a formal education because her family was too poor.

I had to scratch my head, apologize, and repeat the test again. Her visual acuity score got better; although she could not identify letters, she knew her numerals by heart.

I went home wrestling with the concept of a life without the written word. How does it feel like—living on earth for 70 or so years without so much as reading an engaging poem, a funny short story, a riveting novel?

In a world where people use written symbols to communicate, illiteracy is a form of tragedy.

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