Why You Need to Know the Truth about Blindness

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If you have never met a blind person before, it is a common expectation by many that when a person says they are blind, people naturally assume the blind person has no sense of sight. Their world is one of total darkness and it seems a fair assumption to interpret being blind to mean not having the ability to notice anything a sighted person can see.

But here lies a dilemma: there are varying degrees of blindness.

Many ‘blind’ people can actually see something, even if vaguely.

So many factors make each person’s experience of blindness different to another’s, depending on varying eye-conditions, personal health and external influences such as natural or artificial light.

The truth of the ‘blind matter’ is, only a small percentage of people are totally blind. Others adjust to using whatever small amount of sight they have left by maximising their limited field of central and peripheral vision. Even being able to tell the difference between night from day is sending the brain some sort of visual information.

It is a perplexing contradiction for sighted people to understand and can be equally difficult for a blind person to explain because their vision can fluctuate on a daily basis.

Some people who say they are blind may appear to look you straight in the eye or reach out to shake your hand. They may spot something small on the ground, yet promptly bump into large furniture or walk into a door.

Sighted people are confused by the mixed messages coming from the body language of a person experiencing vision loss. How can the blind person wear perfectly applied make-up or be color-coordinated or pull out their iPhone to give you directions? What is going on? They are not supposed to see through blind eyes.

That’s the misconception.

If we use my own eye-condition as an example, the word ‘blind’ may take on a different light. I have a degenerative eye-disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). My right eye is totally blind, incapable of seeing anything at all, while my left eye, the ‘good’ eye, helps me to discern objects in a constant thick blur during daylight hours. My small amount of central sight works very hard to make sense of visual clues by looking for high contrasts.

For instance, picking out a dark coffee cup is best achieved if placed on a light-colored table or cloth. Similarly, the reverse is true: to gauge the top step of a flight of stairs, the shiny-steel strip on the edge of dark carpet, allows me to be prepared. So I am both blind and partially-sighted – with the correct term being, ‘legally blind’.

In other words, people who retain a small amount of vision, even if this only enables them to see poorly, are recognised as ‘legally blind’.

How is eyesight measured?

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, almost 1.3 million Americans age forty and above, are legally blind.

They advise that it is also important to understand how eyesight is measured.

To test a person’s central vision, reading the letters on an eye chart helps the specialist to record the person’s ability to read each line in turn which is known as their visual acuity

You may have heard of normal sight as having 20/20 vision. This means that the first number is the distance (measured in feet) that the person is tested from the eye chart, and the second is the distance from which a person with normal eyesight (i.e. 20/20) can clearly see the letters on the chart.

So, if a person is scored as having a visual acuity of 20/60, this means they are seeing the letters at 20 feet which a person with normal sight can see at 60 feet. The higher the second number in the visual acuity test, the worse the person’s vision.

Defining Legal Blindness

As stated by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, “when your visual acuity with eyeglasses or corrective lenses is 20/200 or worse, or your side vision is 20 degrees or less, you are considered legally blind – even though you may still have some useful vision.”

5 Things to Remember about Being Blind:

1:  People experiencing vision loss don’t see exactly the same as each other even if diagnosed with the same eye condition.

2:  Don’t assume what helps one legally blind person is the best way to assist another in a similar situation.

3:  Some legally blind people rely on using high contrasts during the day yet can experience total night-blindness.

4: Blindness can affect a person’s central or peripheral vision, or both, and their residual sight can change on a daily basis according to their eye condition, personal health, natural lighting and other environmental factors.

5: Some blind people wear dark glasses because they have light sensitivity, glare sensitivity, or find it difficult to adjust between the light and the dark and not because they are trying to disguise diseased eyes.

The next time you meet a blind person, don’t be too surprised when they say, “Nice to see you.”

To read about the different definitions given for low vision, visually-impaired and other eye-conditions, I highly recommend finding out about blindness statistics from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

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