Low Vision, What Does It Mean?

Last Editorial Review: 7/7/2004

What is low vision?

Low vision is a visual impairment, not correctable by standard glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery, that interferes with a person's ability to perform everyday activities.

What are the warning signs of low vision?

Some warning signs include the following:
  • Trouble reading, cooking, or sewing.
  • Trouble seeing because the lights don't seem as bright as usual.
  • Trouble recognizing the faces of friends and relatives.
  • Trouble crossing the street or reading signs.

A person who is having these vision difficulties should immediately make an appointment with an eye care professional for an eye examination. If the person's vision cannot be treated by conventional methods, such as glasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery, then he or she should ask the eye care professional for information about vision rehabilitation. These services may include eye examinations, a low vision evaluation, training on how to use visual and adaptive devices, support groups, and training on how to perform everyday activities in new ways.

What causes low vision?

Low vision can result from a variety of diseases, disorders, and injuries that affect the eye. Many people with low vision have age-related macular degeneration, cataract, glaucoma, or diabetic retinopathy. Age-related macular degeneration accounts for almost 45 percent of all cases of low vision.

Who is at higher risk for low vision?

People age 65 and older, as well as African Americans and Hispanics over age 45, are at higher risk. African Americans and Hispanics are at higher risk for low vision because they are at higher risk for developing diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, and African Americans are at a higher risk for developing glaucoma.

How many people have low vision?

Approximately 14 million Americans--about one out of every 20 people--have low vision. About 135 million people around the world have low vision.

[The Lighthouse. (1994). The Lighthouse National Survey on Vision Loss: The Experience, Attitudes, and Knowledge of Middle-Aged and Older Americans. New York: The Lighthouse, Inc., Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.]

Is the number of people with low vision expected to grow?

Yes. About one in eight Americans is now 65 or older. That number is expected to grow, while mortality rates are expected to drop. By 2030, the number of Americans 65 and over is projected to double.

How much does low vision cost the country?

More than $22 billion is spent annually on care and services for people who are blind or have visual impairments. These costs include treatment, education, loss of personal income, and associated costs, such as Social Security disability benefits.

[National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research. (1995). A Vision of Hope for Older Americans: Progress and Opportunities in Eye and Vision Research. An official report to the White House Conference on Aging.]

How does low vision affect people's lives?

People with low vision experience physical, economic, and psychological changes that diminish their quality of life. Low vision affects daily routines (walking, going outside, cooking), leisure activities (reading, sewing, traveling, sports), and the ability to perform job-related functions that can lead to a loss of income. These consequences often lead people with low vision to become confused, grief-stricken, fearful, anxious, and depressed. In addition, people with low vision who lose their depth perception are at greater risk of falling and injuring themselves.

Do people with low vision experience problems on the job?

One-third of all people with visual impairments who responded to a 1994 survey by The Lighthouse, a vision advocacy and social service organization, said that their vision problems created some difficulty in performing their jobs. Half of all respondents said that loss of income as a result of low vision was a somewhat serious or very serious problem.

[The Lighthouse. (1994). The Lighthouse National Survey on Vision Loss: The Experience, Attitudes, and Knowledge of Middle-Aged and Older Americans. New York: The Lighthouse, Inc., Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.]

Are people with low vision more prone to accident and injury?

Evidence suggests that the loss of stereoscopic vision and depth perception increases a person's chances of tripping, falling, or running into objects such as an open cabinet door, for example.

[Bachelder, J., and Harkins, D., Jr. (1995). Do occupational therapists have a primary role in low vision rehabilitation? American Journal of Occupational Therapy 49:927-930. Swagerty, D., Jr. (1995). The impact of age-related visual impairment on functional independence in the elderly. Kansas Medicine 96:24-26.]

What resources and strategies can help people perform daily tasks at home?

Resources and strategies depend on the severity of a person's vision impairment. At home, people need devices that can help them read, write, and manage the tasks of daily living. These adaptive devices include:

  • Adjustable lighting, prescription reading glasses, large-print publications, magnifying devices, closed-circuit televisions, cassette recordings, electronic reading machines, and computers with large print and speech output systems.

  • Simple strategies include writing with bold black felt tip markers and writing on tablets with bold lines to make it easier to write in a straight line.

  • Contrasting colors are helpful: people can place colored tape on the edges of steps to help them see the steps and prevent a fall. Dark-colored light switches and electrical outlets can provide contrast on light-colored walls.

  • Motion lights that automatically turn on when someone enters a room are helpful.

  • Telephones, clocks, and watches with large numbers can help people use those instruments more easily, and large-print labels placed on the stove and microwave oven can help, too.


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Among the visual devices that can help people with low vision are reading glasses with high-powered lenses and reading prisms; telescopes and telescopic spectacles for tasks requiring vision at near, middle, and far distances; and reversed telescopes for visual field defects. These devices must be prescribed by eye care professionals, and patients must be trained to use them properly.

What agencies and organizations provide people who have low vision with help and information?

Many agencies and organizations in the community provide assistance and information to people who have low vision, and to their families and caregivers. State agencies for the blind and visually impaired can make referrals to a variety of organizations that provide assistance. Such services include vision rehabilitation, recreation, counseling, and job training or placement.

Why aren't these resources used more often?

Many people don't know that help exists. They think of low vision as a natural part of aging, not as a problem that can be treated. Others feel that these services and devices are for people who are blind, not for people with low vision. Also, the cost of many devices keeps people from obtaining them. Finally, people may know that help exists, but they don't know what their options are and aren't sure how to ask for help or whom to consult.

What should a person do if he or she knows someone with low vision?

Urge that person to make an appointment with an eye care professional for an eye examination. Then help the person find out about low vision and vision rehabilitation services and encourage him or her to take advantage of all available resources.

Is a low vision examination covered by health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare?

Policies vary by state, but generally Medicare will cover low vision examinations performed by eye care professionals. Private health insurance usually does not cover low vision examinations, but one should check with their carrier to be sure.

How can the public get a free booklet on low vision?

Call 1-877-569-8474 to order a booklet on low vision.

This information has been provided with the kind permission of the National Institutes of Health National Eye Institute (www.nei.nih.gov).

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