34-Year-Old Man Goes Viral After Saying "What's Up! I Can't Read"

TikToker explains why he's trying to remove the stigma surrounding illiteracy. 

literacy isn't talked about enough and personal trainer Oliver James wants to change that. The 34-year-old went viral for revealing his personal struggle with reading and uses his inspiring account to raise awareness about the issue–there's also a lot of encouraging videos to help motivate people to work out.  "What's up! I can't read," are the words that jump started his new path and he's documenting on TikTok how he's learning to read better.  "I went in my van and I pretty much just said 5 words … and that just started the whole entire journey on TikTok," James told TODAY

More Americans are Struggling with Literacy Than What You Think

Good Morning America

An estimated 130 million adults in the U.S.–have low literacy skills according to a Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. This means more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 (54%) read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. USA Today reports the "reading crisis has been 20 years in the making. While one-third of students are considered proficient, the statistics are even more alarming for various demographics, such as low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities." The COVID-19 pandemic created a new set of challenges by decreasing the opportunity for people to attend learning programs. In addition, COVID shined a light on a growing problem–a digital divide. People were left without access to teachers and many fell through the cracks. According to USA Today, "This is troubling for many reasons. Literacy can be a great equalizer, leveling the playing field across systemic societal issues, like race and gender inequality. It plays an enormous role in increasing access to economic opportunity."

James is Functionally Illiterate


James is one of the eight million American adults who is functionally illiterate, meaning,  "a person cannot use reading, writing, and calculation skills for his/her own and the community's development. Functional illiteracy has considerable negative effects not only on personal development, but also in economic and social terms."

James Faced Problems as a Kid Because He Couldn't Read

Good Morning America

As a kid, James dealt with behavioral problems in school because he couldn't read and was placed in special education classes that he tells Good Morning America weren't helpful. "The special education system at the time was more focused on behavioral than educating. So they spent a lotta time restraining us, a lotta time disciplining us, a lotta times putting us in positions to kinda shape us to just not act out in class," he recalled. He added, "You can't fully function in society without the tools that you need as a young person."

James is Teaching Himself to Read

Good Morning America

After sharing with viewers that he can't read well, James shared another video with the caption "I am teaching myself to read so I picked the diary of Anne frank as my first book." In the clip he reiterated ,"I can't read that well, but you already know if you've been following along. I'm on a journey to fix that." He adds, I'm reading the diary of Anne Frank. I've been told it's a little bit of a heated book. It might be a little bit emotional." He then dives in and begins to read out loud for a minute before telling viewers he's going to do a book a week. 

James Plans on Reading 100 Books This Year Thanks to the Support He's Received

Good Morning America

James, who used voice memos as a way to get around reading texts, is committed to learning. His goal is to read 100 books in 2023 and told TODAY, "I like to go zero to 100 real quick. I like to kind of push the barrier a little farther than it needs to go so I can learn." With the support of fans and Barnes and Noble who sent him a gift card, he has many reading options now. "When they gave me the gift card, I was just like, 'I'm going to be able to build a library. he told TODAY. I went from no books at all when I put that (first) post up," he says. "It's shocking. It's support toward the dream."

James' Wife Helped Kickstart His Mission

I. C. Robledo

James never owned a book until his wife gave him 365 Quotes to Live Your Life By, which was life changing. He told GMA, "I just went out and read one word. One word turned into two, two words turned into three. That turned into a page." His reading skills improved so much, he's now reading books on camera and inspiring others. "If you struggle with the same things, no matter what your age is, it's all good," he says in one of his TikTok videos. "No need to be embarrassed because we can learn."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more
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