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No ordinary reading life

It’s a Saturday afternoon at home in 2002. The loud aroma of boerewors and pap from the kitchen competes with the sound of impending doom in Bill Withers’ I Can’t Write Left-Handed coming from my parent’s room.

The backtrack’s deep humming and sound of marching feet puts my seven-year-old self in a state of quiet contemplation about what Withers is saying: “I can’t write left-handed/ Would you please write a letter — write a letter to my mother?”

Having recently “mastered” the skill of writing my name and the details of my world, I was silently shattered by the thought of no longer having the agency to write.

It is now 2017 and the cares of the world have long consumed the cares of my seven-year-old self, as I sit among friends at an impromptu dinner party. The same loud aroma of boerewors and pap dances with the buzzing sound of opinionated well-read twentysomethings in a tiny flat somewhere in Central Pretoria.

Although the text messages sent between us had to do with catching up and making vision boards, we spend our time drinking and discussing the books we’ve read over the past year, until a friend of a friend puts the exchange on hold.

“I hate readers and their books,” she says.

A dozen of us snap at her with the question: “Why don’t you just read?” To which she answers: “I can’t. I struggle to read.”

The unexpected comment lets us into an unknown world where reading is not the simple act of borrowing or buying a book. The friend of a friend, a lively and opinionated person who yearns to escape into the worlds created by the countless authors who have adopted us, is dyslexic.

“When I was very small, and learning to read, reading in front of people was very embarrassing. I found it quite humiliating and gave up on trying to do it when I didn’t have to,” says the friend, who has asked not to be named.

Although she is aware that her struggle with reading is no one’s fault, not even her own, people’s unawareness about the issue makes it a challenging one to address. I ask her whether she thinks this is an issue that the literary world should be tackling. “I’m not quite sure what the literary world could do for us,” she says, laughing at the thought of anyone taking this seriously.

In between anecdotes about how she keeps busy, the talk ends up being about ground-level solutions we can administer within our circle. Although the conversation leaves us with a loose plan of action, it begs me to ask whether there are official channels that accommodate the unconventional consumer of literature.

These unconventional consumers include individuals with a condition that presents reading as a difficulty, such as blindness, impaired vision and forms of dyslexia and dysgraphia, among others.

One such establishment is the South African Library for the Blind (Salb) in Grahamstown. It makes unconventional literary material available to its 6 920 members — who are either blind or have impaired vision — using an audio format.

“When we first started we had cassettes, but then we introduced Victor Readers, which read Daisy books,” says Linda Ngaleka, senior manager of Salb’s Library Services.

Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) books are digital audio systems designed as a complete substitute for print material, for individuals who struggle to read print. Users can use Daisy books to search, place bookmarks, navigate texts line by line and regulate the speaking speed without distortion. In so doing, the system allows its users to navigate texts as complex as encyclopedias and textbooks, which would otherwise be impossible using conventional audio recordings.

Ngaleka says the bulk of texts that are available to their users are in English. The language used is dependent on what languages the volunteers can speak and read for it to be available in a format compatible with the Daisy system. “We are a national library so we have to cover all 11 languages. But there is a challenge of getting texts in a variety of languages and getting people to narrate the books.”

Ngaleka mentions that parallel to the need for volunteers in all 11 official languages is the cost behind having access to such a service. “We are not fully funded by government so money is our number one challenge.”

The Daisy book devices that the library couriers to its members, using a free postal service, cost more than R5 000. And although it may be the only cost for the service, it removes a portion of the working and middle class as potential members.

And although Salb membership is made up of individuals who are blind or visually impaired, they are open to alternative membership requests. “We haven’t received any requests with any other challenges. But we’re open to dealing with such requests if we receive them,” says Ngaleka.

On the contrary, Professor Mark de Vos, president of the Linguistics Society of South Africa and a lecturer at Rhodes University, offers the option of seeing a speech therapist as an alternative that can encourage individuals with reading difficulties to take on the task of reading habitually.

“They could teach you some coping mechanisms that might help you along because dyslexia does not remove the ability to read entirely; rather, it only impairs the process,” he says.

Therapists deal with oral language development, which serves as a foundation for literacy. Treatment will involve working on one’s auditory processing skills, articulation, letter-sound knowledge and exercising the short-term working memory.

A third alternative is installing natural reading software on to devices such as tablets and computers to help with creating or reading web pages, emails and documents using voice commands. Such software is priced around R2 000 and is only viable if one has the machinery.

After speaking to De Vos and Ngaleka, I returned to the friend to ask her whether any of these channels to literature seemed viable. She smirks at the amounts of money involved.

“Why can we only solve problems with money? But I guess it’s no one’s problem but my own. It sucks how this isn’t something I can ignore. It’s not like I can be like ‘Reading is hard, but oh well who needs it.’ No, I can’t avoid it … Everybody can read, bra. Especially if you are as old as we are. So I’ll hush [because] I don’t have the money and energy to put into reading or listening to books.”

After having these conversations, being left with a few questions is almost inevitable. For instance, are there affordable, ground-level paths to literature when you have difficulty reading? Is this a problem worth addressing? If yes, who should be addressing such problems?

For information on how to become a member or volunteer at the South African Library for the Blind visit

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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