Living in the Shadows: Illiteracy in America

Millions live with the crippling secret that affects their everyday lives.

ByABC News
October 14, 2008, 5:20 PM

Feb. 25, 2008— -- It's a chronic crisis of huge proportions, one that keeps millions of Americans living in the shadows. And for nearly all of her of 45 years, Monica Baxley had lived with the crippling secret.

"I cried a lot over this," she said, "when I was alone and just would wonder what could be done, you know, if there was any help out there for me."

Click HERE for a list of literacy resources.

Baxley, of the Florida panhandle town of Chipley, was functionally illiterate. She quit school in the ninth grade, and for 30 years kept her secret from friends, family and even her husband.

"I didn't want to be exposed, beyond anything else. That was the most important thing -- for no one to ever learn."

Baxley joins so many others with literacy challenges: 7 million Americans are illiterate, 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application and 30 million can't read a simple sentence.

Her travel was limited because she was unable to read road signs. She was unable to read a newspaper or food labels in a supermarket.

Baxley never voted in an election. "I didn't know who or what to vote for," she said.

Her illiteracy even impacted her physical health, as she avoided seeing the doctor out of fear she would have to fill out a medical form or read a prescription.

"My health is poor now, but I really believe that's because I never went to the doctor and had my physicals and stuff that I should have had," Baxley admitted.

A recent study from the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed patients who had difficulty reading prescriptions were 50 percent more likely to die from disease than patients who were literate.

"It is a life and death issue," said study author Dr. David Baker of Northwestern University. "Literacy affects your health in so many different ways," he said, from inability to properly follow instructions to not knowing about common conditions or what symptoms to look for.

"So when you put all of these things together it's not surprising that people with the lower literacy levels are more likely to die [earlier]," Baker said.