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Vision Problems: Make the Problem Smaller by Making Things Bigger

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Aug. 8, 2000 -- The presence of an eye disease doesn't automatically mean a person can't read. It's just that they may need a little help. That is the message of a British study that examined the efficacy of visual aids in patients with a variety of eye disorders -- including macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and others. About 170 people took part in the study -- most of them elderly.

Going in, more than three-quarters of them could not read a standard newspaper -- and 40% had trouble with large print. But with an appropriate visual aid, those numbers improved dramatically, such that 90% could read standard newsprint.

The aids included several types of magnifiers -- illuminated and not -- and either hand-held or on a stand. The authors aren't saying these devices are perfect for reading a book -- reading speed and duration weren't measured -- but they do point out that visually impaired people who may have given up on routine household tasks, such as paying bills, can do them if they get help.

That's exactly the message Lester Minton of Rego Park, N.Y., wants visually handicapped people to get. The 77-year-old suffers from macular degeneration. But maybe "suffers" is the wrong word: He spoke with WebMD just after returning from a bicycle ride, and a few months before indulging in one of his favorite sports: skiing. "We have 98% of our peripheral vision left. We can survive. I can see cars. I can see people. But I don't define features ... I'm able to accomplish so much because I don't allow this visual impairment to halt my progress and the balance of my life."

Among the aids Minton relies on: A hand-held magnifier, which he carries around constantly to allow for the reading of small print on labels -- and a more sophisticated machine. "Now I'm sitting in front of my major device," he says. "Which is a closed-circuit TV." Minton slides a hard-to-read document on a platform below the box and it is projected onto the screen. "I use this closed-circuit TV to write checks, read what I have to ... So that I don't feel left behind, which is one of the major stumbling blocks for seniors and for those with handicaps."

But many are left behind, for a variety of reasons. "There's no such thing as anybody with any residual vision not being able to read," says Lorraine Marchi, founder and CEO of the National Association for Visually Handicapped (NAVH). "Most people don't know what's available." And, she says, some people want to keep their handicap hidden: "Most people don't need white canes or guide dogs. (But) they feel it's a stigma. Therefore, a lot of people don't want help. They don't want anyone to know they're visually impaired." And yet at least 20 million Americans probably are impaired to one degree or another, Marchi says.

While magnifiers of one sort or another are the primary means of helping visually handicapped people to function, they're not the only things out there. The NAVH website ( sells wide-lined paper, templates for writing checks, envelopes and letters, as well as talking watches and ones with big numbers.

For those unwilling to avail themselves of visual aids, Minton has a final bit of advice: "We have to be positive. We have it. But it's not the end of the world."


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