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what can visually impaired people see

Just because someone is visually impaired doesn’t mean they can’t see. Visual impairment is an umbrella term that covers a complete spectrum from low vision (can’t read normal news-sized fonts at normal reading distances – even with prescriptive eyeglasses or contacts) to total blindness (cannot perceive changes in light and shadow). 

Defined Stages Of Visual Impairment (VI)

Anyone who requires glasses or contact lenses for close or distance vision has some level of vision impairment, even if it doesn’t impact their daily quality of life. However, the term Visual Impairment – VI – describes vision loss beyond what a standard eyeglass or contact lens prescription corrects.

For example, you may be substantially near or farsighted, but if you can read a newspaper or a book with a normal font at a normal distance with eyeglasses or a contact prescription, you’re not considered visually impaired. 

Visual impairment categories begin when vision loss impacts normal daily activities, like reading, watching TV, and driving that can’t be corrected with eyeglasses or contacts. 

Initial Symptoms Of Vision Impairment

The average sighted patient with vision impairment involving nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism can still participate in normal activities by wearing eyeglasses, contacts, or vision correction surgery (which may eliminate vision loss!). 

People with vision impairment are born with – or develop – more severe symptoms of vision loss, such as:

In other cases, vision loss may move beyond these into the legal or total blindness categories.

Four Categories Of Vision Loss

We categorize patients with vision impairment by the level of vision loss.  

Low vision

This is the mildest form of vision loss. Most people with low vision may not be able to read a paper or book with glasses, but they can use magnification tools instead. Being mindful of available light sources also boosts sightedness for people in the low vision category.

Musicians or others with low vision typically require sheet music or other texts in large font options. Smart gadgets greatly help people with low vision because they frequently offer font enlargement options and text-to-voice features that make online resources more available.

Partially sighted

People who are partially sighted cannot see even with magnification tools. People falling into the partially sighted category may still be able to see lines of text, but it’s impossible to bring them into focus so they’re legible. They can often see shapes or general colors, as well as changes in lighting, but they require the same types of educational and functional support as those who are legally blind.

Adaptations most often used to support partially sighted patients are:

  • Audio recordings and voicer readers.
  • Raised markings on appliance controls.
  • Raised line drawings

If patients are partially sighted with a progressive condition, this is a good time to align with community resources and support for the legally and totally blind to ease the transition.

Legally blind

Most sighted people confuse the term legally blind with totally blind. This is not the case. While all people with total blindness are legally blind, most legally blind people can see more than you think. Many people who can see with eyeglasses and contacts would qualify as legally blind if those vision prescriptions didn’t exist!

The term legally blind is defined by the Social Security Administration (SSA). According to the NIH, a person meeting the diagnostic parameters of the legally blind:

…is eligible to receive disability benefits, tax exemption programs, and rehabilitation training. A person is considered legally blind if he/she has central visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better-seeing eye with the best correction (using glasses or contact lenses) at a distance, or if he/she has visual field restriction where the widest diameter is 20 degrees or less in the better-seeing eye.

Even within the spectrum of legally blind, there are vast differences in what our patients can see and do. For example, some of our patients can see just enough to navigate their general world without most people noticing they’re blind. Others require more regular assistance from things like mobility canes and may look more like they are totally blind, even though they can differentiate light and shadow or certain shapes/figures. 

People who are legally blind may also benefit from things like low-vision aids, different colors for different rooms or walls of the home to tell them apart, dividers in wallets for different monetary denominations, and so on. Audio and tactile aids become huge supports for daily life.

Total blindness

If you cannot see anything, including changes in light, you have total blindness. This is the most rare form of vision loss, and only about 15% of those diagnosed as legally blind have total blindness. People with total blindness have a range of supports available to them and should take advantage of them to improve their quality of daily life significantly.

Common Myths About Visual Impairment

There are many myths about visual impairment and being blind. By now, you know that 85% of the visually impaired community can see more than you may have imagined. However, we want to debunk a few more myths about the VI community:

  • They do not have enhanced senses. People often say that when you lose one sense, the other senses grow stronger. That’s not the case. However, someone with impaired vision will rely more on their other senses, and so those senses may seem stronger when it’s really a matter of attunement.
  • Those who are blind can’t dream. Sighted people have very visual dreams, and so they assume those who are blind can’t. That’s not true, and blind people dream just as much as sighted folks, but their dreams may have different qualities. People who lost their sight over time may have visual dreams their whole life or the images may begin to fade over time, transitioning into hearing/feeling dreams. Those who are born totally blind or lose their vision during early childhood typically experience hearing and feeling dreams.
  • You can always tell if someone is blind. We hinted at this above. However, many of our patients get frustrated because even though they may be significantly legally blind, others doubt that since our patients navigate the world so well. If a person is totally blind, odds are they use sunglasses (to hide eyes that don’t focus well), a mobility cane, or they may have a seeing-eye dog. However, many significantly legally blind patients navigate their worlds so well, incredibly familiar buildings and communities, that nobody would know otherwise.

We Would Love To Connect You To Community Support Hubs

Are you interested in learning more about how to support the visually impaired people in your community? Most of our area’s public and grassroots support groups rely on local volunteer support and donations to support those who need it. Contact Atlantic Eye Institute to learn more about what you can do to help.

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