- Disabilities & the Disabled
Living With Low Vision
Low and impaired vision can create a number of obstacles to living life fully such as difficulty reading, negotiating stairs, and avoiding tripping hazards.
Visual impairment is an invisible disability that most people will never see, yet there are many of us who face this challenge every day. I am one of them.
Back in the summer of 2003, the vision in my right eye started to become blurry. When I woke up the morning, I woke up seeing through a white fog, but my vision got better as the day progressed.
After seeing an optometrist and an ophthalmologist (eye specialist), I was diagnosed with a condition called corneal edema. The cells behind my cornea were not pumping moisture away and the seepage onto the cornea caused swelling and blurriness. Eye drops every few hours helped to improve my condition.
After a long time on a waiting list, I had a corneal transplant in the effected right eye. My vision in my right eye ranged from wonky and blurry to almost clear, but my left eye and glasses compensated somewhat. My right eye has become stronger through time, though far from perfect.
My vision generally ranges from blurry in the morning, to fairly clear by evening with the use of eye drops. If my eyes are tired or irritated or I have not had enough sleep, my quality of vision will go down.
In May, 2014, I was cleaning my glasses a lot without success, and realized that they were not the problem. Vision in my left eye went from blurry to looking through a dirty window. I went to see an eye doctor. Fortunately, he found that the corneal implant in my right eye is OK and my left eye can be managed with eye drops – at least for now.
I can relate to the many people who struggle with their vision every day, however. Vision loss is not necessarily a static condition that stays the same. Some like me may have good days and bad days where there vision is concerned.
Some of my Pet Peeves
- A pharmacy that has almost unreadable signage of grey on white
- Tiny print for cooking instructions on packages - especially here in Canada, where I strain to read instructions only to find that I am trying to read the French side, not the English
- Experiencing shock when unexpected dips in sidewalks or unevenness jolt my walk
- Trying to navigate stairs and figure out where they end without breaking my neck, especially outside at night
- Having people approach me who know and acknowledge me but who I cannot recognize until they are coming up close to me
- Poor lighting that makes my eyesight go wonky
- Straining to read music or words projected onto a screen while singing at church
- Struggling to find products at a store because of poor print and a lack of visual aids
- Getting puzzled looks from store clerks or fast food personnel when I tell them cannot read their signs or labels and ask for help
- When customer service people treat me as if my visual difficulty is also an intellectual impairment
- I enlarge the zoom on my computer screen only to find the material does not all fit on the page or interferes with web page's settings
About Low Vision
Low vision is defined as severely impaired vision that cannot be corrected by glasses or contact lenses, and affects every day functioning. According to the U.S. National Eye Institute, between 3.5 million and five million Americans live with some type of visual impairment.
The World Health Organization estimates that there are 246 million people in the world with low vision, many in developing countries who do not have proper access to healthcare.
The term “low vision” was coined by Eleanor Faye and Gerald Fonda in the 1950s. These and other pioneers emphasize the need for the medical community and rehabilitation professionals to address the ways low vision negatively limits function and to emphasize the importance of using residual and peripheral vision.
How to Reduce Barriers
Researchers are currently studying ways that barriers to visual accessibility can be reduced. For example, architectural design can help ensure that people with low vision avoid obstacles and other potential hazards.
Reading accessibility is another barrier. Text may be too small to read easily. I recently had to practically put my nose to paper so that I could read the small print of a form I was filling out for a dentist. Many signs in stores have print that is large enough, but are so similar to the background that they are impossible to read.
I would love to be able to look at the clock at my favorite donut shop and tell the time but I cannot. The hands of the clock are so close in color to the background that they cannot be seen by people with impaired vision like me.
Researchers are coming up with a number of solutions to help people with low vision. Gordon E. Legge, PhD, of University of Minnesota, has been developing software tools that can show architects how visually impaired see the world with characteristics such as contrast sensitivity and reduced visual acuity. The software can also demonstrate whether architectural features can be seen by a person with low vision.
Technological advances such as electronic readers can help improve reading accessibility, but some people do not know how to use their features. People also may not know the services that are available on the Internet for people with low vision. For example, Amazon offers free downloadable software that performs the same as Kindle e-readers on a computer screen.
Researchers say that more research needs to be done to understand how factors such as visual acuity, viewing distance, print size, font, and display geometry interact to provide technology or aids that create greater reading accessibility.
I sometimes have to ask for help to allow me to cope with my vision loss. My family becomes readers for me when I cannot read labels. I will ask for help in a store if I cannot read something. I often hold back from doing so, however, because of the stigma that is attached to disability. I also do not want my request to be interpreted as a bid for sympathy or special privileges.
There are many ways I can deal with bad vision days. When I go down the stairs, I put the back of my foot against the step and test whether I am at the bottom by moving my foot forward. I try to be aware of my environment and any possible hazards.
I am able to write this article because I used the “Zoom” feature on my word processing program to enlarge the font.
My eye condition seems to be stable with ongoing treatment for now, but for many people, vision loss makes everyday life challenging. Our world needs to be much more aware that not everyone has 100 percent vision. There are many barriers such as signs with little contrast between the print and background, obstacles and tripping hazards, and small print.
There are many technologies available to help people with vision loss such as special lights and magnifying tools.
Organizations serving the blind and visually impaired have information and may even have a low vision store with helpful devices.
Having clear signage and print materials out in the world would not only help people with low vision, it would help people over the age of 45 who have had to face the grim reality of bifocals or reading glasses. Larger print, signage with sharp contrasts, and relatively obstacle-free world can help all of us to live life more fully.