Low-Vision Devices Keep Independence in Sight

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March 7, 2000 (Lake Worth, Fla.) -- When 77-year-old Bernard Windham, a retired CPA, had to stop doing his family's tax returns, he felt lost and useless. Suffering from macular degeneration -- a progressive eye disorder usually occurring in elderly people that is characterized by loss of vision in the center of the eye -- Windham, who also has a cataract, was classified as legally blind. He was told that nothing more could be done. What Windham and most people don't realize is that there is a whole world of low-vision-assisting devices that will help keep life in focus.

One such device is the Jordy, a virtual reality device that magnifies images up to 25 times for distance and 50 times for close-up work. When Windham heard about this futuristic-looking device, he made an appointment at Emory Eye Center's Low Vision Clinic in Atlanta to see if it would help him.

"Users can wear Jordy like a pair of ultra-high-tech glasses or place the system on a viewing stand for reading on a closed-captioned television," Ned Witkin, OD, director of the Low Vision Clinic, states in a press release. The Jordy is light and portable and can assist in reading, writing, playing cards, sewing, working at a computer, recognizing faces at a distance, or nearly any task -- except driving -- that a person needs to maintain his or her lifestyle.

"I've had the Jordy about a month now," Windham tells WebMD. "I'm very enthusiastic about it; it's allowed me to be useful again." Now this Suwanee, Ga., father of five with seven grandchildren can still keep all the deductions on his family members' tax returns in view.

About 13 million people are affected by age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It is the leading cause of legal blindness for people over 50 in the Western world. Low-vision clinics, such as the one at Emory, can help people like Windham maintain their lifestyle by finding the right vision-assisting device as well as providing rehabilitation therapy to assist them with continuing their daily activities.

There are many low-vision-assisting devices. Some are as sophisticated as the Jordy, and others are simply special glasses with very high-powered lenses. Devices that are not electronic include telescopic lenses and other kinds of special lenses that can be used for distance. Magnifiers, which are used for reading and close-up work, can be a pair of glasses or hand-held and have a self-contained light source.

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Available electronic devices include the MaxPort, a computer mouse-like device that scans a page and magnifies it on a regular television screen or a closed circuit television (CCTV). When using the CCTV, reading material is placed on a platform and projected onto a screen. Contrast can be controlled.

"The majority of people with macular degeneration prefer white letters on a black background," Bruce Rosenthal, OD, tells WebMD. Rosenthal is chief of the Low Vision Program at Lighthouse International and a professor at Mount Sinai-New York University Medical Center.

Eye conditions other than macular degeneration can cause low vision. Others include glaucoma, a condition where the pressure in the eye causes damage to the optic nerve, which slowly destroys the patient's vision; cataracts; and vision loss associated with diabetes.

Rosenthal says that most people do not know there is help for low vision and feel it's a normal part of aging. It's not. "I've been doing this for 25 years and one of my major life objectives is to get the word out."

Lighthouse International, the AMD Alliance International and the National Eye Institute are some of the organizations that help direct patients to a low-vision clinic in their area. They have toll free numbers and web sites: AMD Alliance International, http://www.AMDalliance.com, (877) AMD-7171; Lighthouse International, http://www.lighthouse.org, (800) 829-0500; and the National Eye Institute, http://www.nei.nih.gov, (301) 496-5248.

Vital Information:

  • Although many patients who are losing their vision are told that nothing more can be done, there are low-vision clinics that can direct people to vision-assisting devices and rehabilitation therapy that will enable them to maintain their lifestyles.
  • Some common eye conditions that cause low vision are macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and vision loss associated with diabetes.
  • Low-vision-assisting devices can include anything from special, high-powered lenses to high-tech devices, such as the Jordy or the MaxPort.
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