Although compulsory education has existed for centuries in the Western world, there are millions of people in the EU who have great difficulty in reading and writing.
This term means that a person knows the alphabet, is able to write the own name and read short words. However, a functional illiterate is not able to understand even simple written sentences. Not to mention contracts, citizen information, leaflets or instructions for use.
This makes full participation in social and professional life impossible.
The percentage of functional illiterates varies across European countries.
According to several studies, functional illiteracy affects 10-30% of the population.
In Germany, the most recent “LEO 2018 Study” identified 6.2 million people in the country as functional illiterates.
For the EU with 512 million inhabitants, this means that 50 to 150 million people are suffering from functional illiteracy, and therefore do not have access to any written information.
For many centuries, books and newspapers were the only media that provided access to information. Before the digital age, “reading a book” was one of the TOP 10 leisure activities.
A study in Poland showed that today 63% of the Polish population have not read a book for a whole year. In 22% of all households there is not a single book on the shelf.
Also it is no surprise that people do not like social media content with long texts only.
There must be images, audio and video to attract attention. And the content must be very easy to consume.
Documents, citizen announcements and marketing brochures still provide a lot of written information, often in far too difficult wording/language. And therefore are not accessible for people with functional illiteracy.
It is obvious that illiteracy is a major handicap for those affected – in their careers and social participation.
For this reason, such deficits are taboo. Being stigmatised is a big obstacle for people to admit the problem. And to accept additional education.
It is also obvious that every employer expects all employees to be able to read and write. Hardly anyone has functional illiteracy on the radar when assessing work performance. Sloppy, not interested, distracted are often false impressions of a willing, hardworking, but not sufficiently literate employee.
However, this problem has an even greater impact. It means that 10-30% of consumers have no access to information about products. They will not understand advertising on posters, information in newspapers or even online.
Equally, they will not be able to understand offical directives, safety information, instructions or loan and lease contracts.
The good news is that functional illiteracy is slowly decreasing. Government efforts to improve education are beginning to bear fruit. However, this is a long-term project.
In the meantime, one possible solution is to offer the text additionally in audio format. To provide access to information for those who cannot read it. Whether this is due to functional illiteracy, visual or cognitive impairment or age.
Providing audio messages to all these people will contribute to more customers, a better image and higher sales.