03/14/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Illiterate? Read This!

Can a lack of basic reading skills make you sick?
I would not have readily made that connection but the answer is yes. According to the NNLM, a U.S. government agency:

"...poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race."

I had never heard the term "health literacy" before and came across it while researching the impact of illiteracy in the U.S. It makes sense. If your reading and comprehension skills are sub par, there's a good chance you don't understand how to follow the instructions on your vial of prescription medication. Ditto for your ability to evaluate quality and credibility of information. Pick any outrageous claim made in late-night infomercials. Ask your doctor. Or maybe, don't! Ignore the potential hazards and side effects delivered at hyper speed and just buy this stuff NOW!

I once wrote on this site about a t-shirt line that my friend Stephen was contemplating. His idea was to shine a light on the sad state of affairs in the realm of grammar, literacy and critical thinking, and to use smartass slogans to advance the idea that being smart is cool. I suggested he get on it pronto! I so nagged him that he coaxed me into doing it with him, which is when I started researching stats on illiteracy's devastating left hook. Did you know that:

One in seven adults in the U.S. cannot read this sentence.

This factoid never fails to slay me. And here's just a tiny sampling of how this works in our cities and states:

75 percent of state prison inmates can be classified as low literate.


Low literacy adds $225 billion
in loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

I am a Haitian native. I care about this issue. Only 53 percent of Haitians over the age of 15 can read and write. This explains a lot about why the island is so challenged in so many ways. Microcosm that it is, Haiti has its crazy-scary illiteracy rate hiding in plain sight, showing where many American communities could be headed. (One of the ways I do my bit for Haiti is in the realm of the arts, exposing people to the side of Haiti that does work. I feel in my heart that Haiti's rich arts culture can play a huge part in fostering its renaissance, and have started organizing art-buying tours to the island.)

But I live in the States, and this blight right here at home gnaws away at me. Not only does illiteracy in the nation impact us in unexpected ways, as referenced above, but the resultant lack of critical thinking has begun spreading like a virus, even infecting people who can read and write above high school level. Like being smart is something to be ashamed of.

Can a deficiency in critical thinking lead to buffoonery?

Meet Donald Trump (here's my birth certificate, Bill Maher) and, Dennis (Guess What?) Rodman! Please note that these men are rich and famous, and thus are interviewed by the media just as if they weren't buffoons.

At this point in time, we might even be reaching epidemic (and epic!) proportions of buffoonery! Look at all these exclamation marks! I'm getting so worked up! Buffoons, clowns and train wrecks are accepted as pundits, mere mouse and remote control clicks away, ever-present on our insatiable, indiscriminate news channels, which have stopped pretending to be anything other than naked grabs at larger audience shares. Something must be done, and every little bit helps. Don't think that it doesn't.

So, we give you Thinkware, a line of smartass t-shirts that encourage reading, literacy and not being a moron. These shirts may not replace an Ivy League education, but they'll make us think, laugh and hopefully do some good (part of our proceeds will go to literacy organizations). There's a Kickstarter campaign in the works. Get in on the act and help spread the word! Or in this case, words.