impact of this support is dependent on a greater awareness and understanding
of visual impairment in society as a whole.
According to The Department of Health, there
are currently over 300,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted
in England alone. However, it is accepted that these figures are a gross
underestimation, as registration is voluntary.
There are many misconceptions about blindness.
Only 4% of people who are registered blind have no vision at all. For
the other 96%, the nature of their residual vision will vary according
to different eye conditions.
causes of visual impairment include:
- Macular Degeneration. This is the most common
cause of visual impairment in the UK and is generally related to old
age - it is sometimes referred to as 'wear and tear' on the eye. When
degeneration occurs, it is the detailed central vision that suffers;
peripheral vision is almost completely unaffected. This means that the
person will still see objects, obstacles and steps 'out of the corner
of the eye'. The main practical difficulties are likely to be concerned
with seeing fine details such as reading, writing, seeing people's features
or crossing roads.
- Glaucoma. This is the name for a group of
eye conditions in which the optic nerve is usually damaged by raised
pressure within the eye. Damage to the optic nerve from glaucoma can
result in two different defects: either defects in the overall field
of vision, or later, defects to the central vision. Glaucoma cannot
actually be cured, but the disease can be controlled. Treatment is usually
by eye drops, sometimes by laser and occasionally by an operation to
improve the drainage from the eye. Due to a reduced field of vision,
steps and low obstacles can be a hazard to glaucoma sufferers. Items
such as televisions, shelves and fire hoses can also be a problem if
placed on the wall at head height.
- Cataract. A cataract is a cloudiness or mistiness
in the lens of the eye. The cataract can appear in old age, after injury
or inflammation, or be congenital. It may also be linked with diabetes.
In the early stages, the visual problems are hardly noticeable. Later
the cataract may be visible through the pupil as a whitish area inside
the lens. Untreated, it can lead to overall loss of vision. However,
relatively straightforward surgery is very successful in the removal
of cataracts. Appropriate lighting is very important for cataract sufferers.
If lighting is too bright it will cause glare and reduce vision.
- Diabetic Retinopathy. About one person in
fifty in the UK is affected by diabetes mellitus, which means that the
sugar levels in the blood are not as they should be. This causes blood
vessels in the body to be fragile and liable to rupture. When this occurs
in the blood vessels within the eye, a visual impairment may well occur.
Generally, the vision is described as looking at a jigsaw with pieces
missing. The pattern of these missing pieces will differ from person
to person. As such, it is most important for people with this condition
to be asked individually about their needs.
with a Visual Impairment
Although 'blindness' is a common term, few people
are totally blind and unable even to tell the difference between light
and dark. Much more common is 'visual impairment', in which sight is
blurred, dimmed, restricted, or impaired in some other way. Because
most people rely on sight for so many daily activities, people with
a visual impairment can be at a disadvantage unless specific provisions,
equipment and facilities are made available. Some are explained below:
The Braille system of touch reading was invented in 1829 by a Frenchman
called Louis Braille, blinded by an injury when four years old. Today
there is a standard system for English speaking people. Patterns of
up to six raised dots represent the alphabet, numbers, music and symbols.
* Talking Books
Only four percent of all visually impaired people can read Braille.
For many people who cannot see enough to read, 'talking books' are particularly
important. The tapes / CDs may be recordings of lessons, for schoolwork,
or of speakers reading books which the listener can enjoy. Some national
newspapers are also available in audio format.
The main piece of equipment used by visually impaired people to assist
with mobility is the cane. A visually impaired person with a stick is
a familiar sight to most people, but the distinction between white sticks
and white canes is not generally appreciated. A stick may be painted
white, but its essential function is to support the user. White canes
are designed as a mobility aid and are not meant to take any weight
In addition to the physical provisions available to people who are visually
impaired, simply being registered can also be beneficial. Registration
is voluntary and can allow access to services / benefits provided by
national and local government departments and to enlist the help of
some voluntary agencies. However, some agencies do not insist on people
being registered in order for them to benefit from their services.
* Sighted Guiding
There are times when visually impaired people need help from sighted
people in getting around. Even people who are very good at travelling
alone or with a guide dog welcome help sometimes. The following important
points should always be borne in mind when helping to guide someone:
People with white canes are not necessarily totally blind. Many have
useful vision, but even partially sighted people may need help, for
example, at night or in an unfamiliar place.
People with a white cane with red bands on have both visual and hearing
impairments, as do people whose guide dog has red bands on the harness.
Visually impaired people should always be asked if they actually want
help. Some may not need help, or prefer their independence. Never grab
someone and take charge - no-one likes to be handled in this way.
Don't be put off if help is refused - the next person may be glad of
Do give precise instructions to help visually impaired people find their
way. It is no use saying 'it's over there' and pointing.
A guide dog in harness is working and should not be distracted.
Always announce yourself by name when talking to a visually impaired
Always say when you're leaving; otherwise the person could find himself
or herself talking to an empty space.
Computers open up many new opportunities for
communication through the use of accessible hardware and software. A
special keyboard with touch-patterned keys allows information to be
typed accurately. New programmes also allow people to speak into the
computer, and have their speech converted into written text. Instead
of a normal printer, visually impaired people may use a Braille-embossing
printer, or a speech synthesiser may 'speak' the results out loud. More
complex systems turn normal printed matter into Braille automatically.
* Low Vision Aids
When conventional spectacles can no longer help and surgery or medical
treatment is not appropriate, low vision aids need to be considered.
These range from simple hand-held magnifiers to electronic devices and
different ones are needed for different visual tasks. For some visually
impaired people, these aids permit maximum use of residual vision, enabling
them to read again.
* Optical Aids
Different types of optical aids include:
- Hand magnifiers
- Stand magnifiers
- Spectacle mounted magnifiers
- Spectacle mounted telescopes
- Hand-held telescopes
- Electronic aids.
Electronic aids such as closed circuit television
(CCTV) provide excellent contrast and high magnification. With this
type of equipment, the user sits comfortably in front of the set and
the material to be read is displayed on a screen in large print. This
is achieved by a camera mounted vertically above a moveable platform
on which the reading matter is placed. The user moves the platform so
that the camera scans the print. A more reasonably priced version is
also available which can be used in conjunction with a television set.
* Daily Living
There are a number of types of equipment that can assist people with
a visual impairment in their day to day lives. These include:
- Special kitchen utensils
- Writing aids
- Talking clocks / watches
- Medicine dispensers
- Talking thermometers
- Rain alerts
- Iron guards
- Signature guides
- Tactile tape / CD player controls
Most people take tasks such as pouring a cup
of tea for granted. But if you cannot see when the water has reached
the top of the cup, it becomes much more difficult. A liquid level indicator
has been designed to enable visually impaired people to tell when the
sufficient amount of liquid has been poured into a cup or glass.
These are just some of the many ways in which
visually impaired people can overcome the challenges of their visual
impairment in their day to day lives, and continue to live as independent
a life as possible. Visual impairment is neither a test of strength
nor a competition - no visually impaired person can be expected to conform
with another's attitudes or progress. However, given time and the right
support, each person will move forward in his or her own way.