To be unable to read as an adult is embarrassing. But worse than that, it is a crippling handicap, closing doors to a fuller life, both economically and in a learning sense. Illiteracy turns even the simple tasks of every-day living into a struggle.

Going shopping is a special problem to a person who can't read signs and labels. Someone who is illiterate can't read a bus schedule, fill out a job application, read instructions, or take the written test for a driver's license. It's hard to hold a good job, or get a better one; books, magazines, newspapers are a mystery.This would be bad enough if it involved just a few people. But the problem is enormous. World-wide there are an estimated 884 million illiterates, a fourth of them in China.

But the U.S. can hardly afford to be smug. Some 20 million Americans can't read at the "survival" level. Another 40 million are marginal, having trouble with anything but the simplest words. That totals 60 million, one-third of the U.S. adult population. And the problem is getting worse as the number of adult American functional illiterates grows by 2.2 million a year. Studies have ranked the U.S. 49th in the world among literate nations.

Specific numbers are hard to come by, since people who can't read go to great lengths to hide their handicap. In Utah, there are an estimated 50,000 people who lack the reading and writing skills to handle even the minimal demands of daily living.

A growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem is stirring education, business, and media organizations to action. Sept. 8 has been declared a National Literacy Day across the nation. As part of that effort, a year-long "Read to Succeed" program will be kicked off in Utah, sponsored by the Deseret News, KBYU, and KTVX, and supported by the Utah Literary/English-as-a-Second Language Coalition.

In the following months there will be special TV broadcasts, reading contests, newspaper stories, and various school programs encouraging young people to read and illiterate adults to learn how.

The Deseret News will continue with its Newspaper in Education program, showing teachers how to use the daily paper as a textbook and producing a teaching aid as a way to encourage the habit of reading. The Deseret News also will launch a Family Focus program aimed at helping individual families use the newspaper to foster reading skills among their children.

The inability to read is a personal tragedy, tantamount to being sentenced for life to ignorance, frustration, discouragement, and lack of opportunity. Yet it is a scourge that can be overcome and erased if enough people get involved.