What Is Low Vision?
As we age, our eyes change too. Many of these changes in vision can be corrected by glasses or contact lenses. However, if your eye doctor tells you that your vision cannot be fully corrected with ordinary prescription lenses, medical treatment, or surgery, and you still have some usable vision, you have what is called "low vision."
Low vision means that even with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery, you might find it challenging, or even difficult, to perform everyday tasks, such as reading your mail, shopping, preparing meals, and signing your name.
There are many signs that can indicate low vision. For example, even with your regular glasses, do you have difficulty:
- Recognizing faces of your friends and relatives?
- Performing tasks that require you to see well up close, such as reading, cooking, crafting, fixing things around the house, or picking out and matching the color of your clothing?
- Performing tasks at work or home because lights now seem dimmer?
- Reading street and bus signs, or the names of stores?
Vision changes like these could be early warning signs of eye disease. Usually, the earlier your problem is diagnosed, the better are your chances of undergoing successful treatment and keeping your remaining vision.
Regular dilated eye exams should be part of your routine health care; however, if you think your vision has changed recently, it's recommended that you make an appointment with your eye care professional as soon as possible.
What Causes Low Vision?
Among older persons, low vision can result from specific eye conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy, from a stroke, or from a range of other eye conditions. Low vision may affect your ability to see people's faces or watch television, to read, to drive, and even to match colors.
It is important to discuss your vision with your eye care professional because many causes of decreased vision can be treatable with medicine or surgery.
What You Should Know About Low Vision
Having "low vision" is not the same as being "blind." For example, your doctor may tell you that you have a blind or blank spot in the center of your vision that limits your ability to read or see people's faces; nevertheless, you can still get around using your side (or peripheral) vision.
Or you may have problems seeing well with your side (or peripheral) vision, but still see clearly enough to read the newspaper using your central vision.
The important thing is to know that there is help. For example, doctors who are low vision specialists can provide you with a low vision exam as a first step in determining how you can use your remaining vision. Often, a low vision specialist can give you recommendations about optical and non-optical devices and vision rehabilitation services that can help you to maximize your remaining vision and learn new ways of doing everyday tasks.
Some examples of helpful devices that a low vision specialist can discuss with you include:
- illuminated stand magnifiers or electronic aids for reading
- strong glasses or loupes for seeing the computer screen, sheet music, or for sewing
- telescopic glasses or monoculars for seeing television, faces, signs, or other items at a distance
- glare shields for reducing glare and enhancing contrast
- adaptive daily living equipment to make everyday tasks easier, such as clocks with larger numbers, writing guides, or black and white cutting boards.
Low Vision Services
Low vision services can include any or all of the following:
- training to use optical and electronic devices correctly
- training to help you use your remaining vision more effectively
- improving lighting and enhancing contrast in each area of your home
- providing a link with a counselor or a support group to help you deal with your feelings related to your changed vision
- learning about other helpful resources in the community and state, such as vision rehabilitation services or free Library for the Blind services.
Here is a checklist to prepare you for your low vision exam, brought to you by the San Antonio Lighthouse:
- Bring any glasses, adaptive aids, and magnifiers that you are currently using to show the specialist. What do you like or dislike about each item?
- Remember that this examination may take longer than one with your optometrist or ophthalmologist. If you have diabetes, be sure to bring a snack with you.
- Bring all forms of insurance with you. Keep in mind that many devices or aids will not be covered by your insurance plan. If you have questions about whether the exam will be covered, ask the low vision clinic prior to your appointment.
- Write a list of areas that you currently have trouble with in relation to your vision. What are your goals and expectations in these areas?
- Does sunlight bother you? Can you read standard print? Can you travel independently?
Remember, the more information you can provide, the better the staff will be able to assist you.
The Low Vision Pilot Project
AFB recently launched the Low Vision Pilot Project on VisionAware, which expanded the listing of low vision service providers to include independent service providers. Previously, the Directory listed only nonprofit low vision service providers. The services offered by agencies under this category are described as follows:
Evaluation and testing of a person's vision; prescription of appropriate optical devices; support, follow-up, and referrals to other appropriate agencies and professionals. These services also include the provision of nonoptical and optical devices (such as magnifiers, microscopes, telescopes) and training in their use.
If you are a low vision service provider such as Low Vision Rehabilitation Services and would like to be included in the Directory, you may fill out a form to sign up. To find out if you are eligible for inclusion in the AFB Directory of Services, see the eligibility requirements.
To learn about low vision services that are available to you in your area, use VisionAware's Directory of Services to find help.
Questions and Answers
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- Kaye Olson
Kaye Olson is the coordinator of the Coping with Vision Loss Study. She is also an author, nurse, nurse practitioner, and faculty adviser who has experienced her own personal journey through vision loss.