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Disability's in Eye of Beholder

With the right training and adaptive equipment, people with limited vision don't have to lead limited lives.

Putting Technology to Work

In addition to learning new ways of doing everyday chores, people with low vision often benefit from the use of adaptive techniques and technologies, ranging from simple but powerful handheld and stand-mounted magnifying glasses to prescription drug bottles that announce their contents when placed in a special reader.

"The most effective thing is the closed-circuit TV system for reading; it's a fantastic device, " says Eliezer Peli, OD, a senior scientist and specialist in low vision at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. Stationary or portable CCTV systems provide high-power magnification of even small-print items, allowing users to read their mail, newspapers, books, and other materials. A low-end system costs about $1,800.

In addition, computer users can choose from among a growing number of magnification programs, some of which incorporate speech recognition technology, allowing users to read documents on screen or surf the web.

For people with less severe visual loss, Peli has developed a special device using high-powered light-bending prisms mounted on eyeglasses that can help people with certain visual conditions drive a car safely. People who may benefit from the device include those with mild macular degeneration, as well as those with hemianopia, a condition resulting in loss of half of the visual field in each eye.

Thirty-six states also permit the use of specialized telescopes that allow people with low vision to drive, says Peli, associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.

Lack of Information

Among the biggest barriers to people with low vision is a lack of information about available resources, says Rosemary Janiszewski, director for the National Eye Health Education program of the National Eye Institute. She tells WebMD that organizations such as The Lighthouse International and the American Foundation for the Blind offer extensive information about local resources where people can go for services in their own community, including local low-vision clinics and visual rehabilitation services.

In addition, each state has a commission for the blind, and each runs a federally funded program, called "Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind," commonly known as Chapter 2. The program assesses the special needs of older people with low vision and provides recommendations and support for adaptations in the living environment and, if required, help with the use of special training and equipment.

"We need to let people know that they can remain in their homes and remain independent by using a these devices, and that the more expensive devices are not necessarily better," Janiszewski says.

The NEI provides on its web site (http://www.nei.nih.gov) a booklet on low-vision services, including a list of resources and questions that people with suspected or diagnosed low vision should ask their eye care professional and rehabilitation specialists, including:

  • "What changes can I expect in my vision? Will my vision loss get worse? How much of my vision will I lose?
  • Will regular eyeglasses improve my vision? What medical/surgical treatments are available for my condition?
  • What can I do to protect or prolong my vision? Will diet, exercise, or other lifestyle changes help?
  • Where can I get a low vision examination and evaluation? Where can I get vision rehabilitation?
  • How can I continue my normal, routine activities? Are there resources to help me in my job?
  • Will any special devices help me with daily activities like reading, sewing, cooking, or fixing things around the house?
  • What training and services are available to help me live better and more safely with low vision?

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