What Does It Mean to Be Legally Blind?

You might be surprised to learn that it’s Uncle Sam, not the doctor, who defines whether you’re legally blind.

The government uses the term “legal blindness” to decide who can get certain benefits, like disability or job training. It is not the same as being totally blind.

If you’re completely blind, you can’t see any light or form. Of the people with eye disorders, only about 15% can see nothing at all. If you’re legally blind, you can still see -- just not that clearly.

Normal vision is 20/20. That means you can clearly see an object 20 feet away. If you’re legally blind, your vision is 20/200 or less. That means if an object is 200 feet away, you have to stand 20 feet from it in order to see it clearly. But a person with normal vision can stand 200 feet away and see that object perfectly.

An estimated 1.1 million Americans are legally blind. Some conditions, like glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetes, can affect your sight to the point that you may be diagnosed with the condition.

Tests for Legal Blindness

Your doctor will check your vision during a standard eye exam.

He or she will measure your eyesight while you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses. Your vision might fall below 20/200 without them. If it improves when you put on your glasses or contacts, you’re not considered legally blind.

What's It Like to Have the Condition?

It varies from person to person. You might be able to see objects at a distance but not from the sides of your eyes (peripheral vision). Or, you might have great peripheral vision but trouble seeing objects far away.

In some states, being classified as legally blind may impact your ability to drive. Talk to your doctor about your concerns.

You can't diagnose yourself with the condition. Your doctor has to make that call, so let her know if you're having eye trouble.

If you learn you're legally blind, organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind can help. They have programs to help you deal with the physical and emotional effects of vision loss.

Being legally blind affects your vision, but it doesn’t have to stop you from leading a fulfilling life.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brian S. Boxer Wachler, MD on November 07, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Foundation for the Blind/VisionAware: “Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions.”

American Optometric Association: “Visual Acuity: What is 20/20 Vision?”

American Foundation for the Blind: “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois.”

Rebecca Sheffield, Ph.D., senior policy researcher, American Foundation for the Blind, Washington, DC

American Medical Association Journal of Ethics: “Legal Vision Requirements for Drivers in the United States.”           

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