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NEI Introduces Low Vision Education Program

By Mike Coogan

On the Front Page...

For about 14 million Americans — one of every 20 — the inability to see well makes doing things difficult. They have trouble recognizing the faces of friends. Seeing the TV is harder, and reading price tags becomes an ordeal. Walking around the neighborhood presents a challenge. What can be done?


Plenty. The National Eye Institute recently launched a Low Vision Education Program that outlines steps people can take to make the most of their remaining vision. The new program brings the message that information and help are available to people with low vision and their families.

"People with low vision have difficulty with everyday activities such as reading the newspaper, recognizing familiar faces, or working at their jobs," said NEI director Dr. Carl Kupfer. "Many people with low vision become socially isolated because they can no longer enjoy social activities such as playing cards or going to a movie. The health of people with low vision may be compromised when they cannot recognize medications or read labels or nutritional information on food packages. Daily life becomes complicated when people are unable to travel alone or lose interest in cooking because the microwave panel or stove dials are hard to see. The impact of low vision on a person's quality of life can be devastating.

Low Vision Traveling Exhibit debuts in Birmingham shopping mall.

"But people should not accept the statement that nothing can be done about their low vision," he said. "The fact is that they can do something about it. The Low Vision Education Program will help educate people with low vision that they can improve their quality of life and learn how to use their remaining vision more effectively. Vision rehabilitation services and a variety of visual and adaptive devices may bring back or help them keep their independence. The program fills an information gap that causes people who have low vision to feel they have no hope for improving their daily lives."

Low vision is broadly defined as a visual impairment not corrected by standard glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery, that interferes with the ability to perform everyday activities. Most people develop low vision because of eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, or age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of severe visual impairment and blindness in Americans 60 years of age and older. Low vision primarily affects people over age 65 and other higher risk populations such as Hispanics and African Americans.

"Too often, our patients become very discouraged when they feel that they no longer can be helped with their vision challenges," said Dr. Robert M. Christiansen, chairman of the American Academy of Ophthalmology's vision rehabilitation committee at a press conference announcing the program. "As vision rehabilitation specialists, we offer help to those who need to continue functioning in their homes, families, schools and work. We are committed to assist those who need magnifiers, other devices and training to assist weakened eyes." Christiansen's comments were echoed by Dr. Larry Spitzberg, immediate past chairman of the low vision section of the American Optometric Association. "We're enthusiastic that this education program will teach both the public and the professions about vision rehabilitation," he said. "There are those physicians who may tell patients 'There is nothing more that can be done.' But something can be done. With vision rehabilitation services, people with low vision can read, sometimes drive, sew, use a computer and do many other activities of daily living."

Cover of NEI's new brochure, What you should know about low vision.

The Low Vision Education Program includes a broad-based consumer media campaign that involves public service announcements for television, radio and print; educational materials such as a large-print brochure, audio tape and videotape; and an outreach program aimed at health care professionals and social service organizations. The program also includes traveling exhibits, which tour shopping malls nationwide and increase public awareness about low vision through interactive displays (see yellow sidebar below).

"People with low vision often accept their condition and do not seek help," said Rosemary Janiszewski, director of NEI's National Eye Health Education Program, a partnership of over 60 public and private organizations united behind a nationwide effort to educate people about the importance of good eye health. "This frustration and uncertainty can lead to profound lifestyle, physical, economic and psychological stresses on them and their families. We want to take the notion that low vision cannot be helped and replace it with messages of hope. The Low Vision Education Program encourages people who cannot see well to continue leading independent and full lives."

Low Vision Exhibit Tours Malls Nationwide

To help provide important information to people with low vision and their families and caregivers, the National Eye Institute has introduced a Low Vision Traveling Exhibit that will make its way to shopping malls around the country during the next few years.

The exhibit, part of NEI's Low Vision Education Program, contains an interactive multimedia touchscreen program; provides information on low vision materials and local services and resources; and displays aids and devices that help people with low vision live full lives. The exhibit includes five colorful kiosks and is designed to attract a cross-section of the population, from the young to senior citizens. Volunteers from the hosting grantee organizations and community groups staff the exhibit and help answer questions.

"The exhibit shows how an increasing number of people are living successfully with low vision," said Judith Stein, NEI's associate director for communication, health education, and public liaison. "What can people do about their low vision? What can they do to maintain their quality of life? How can they make the most of their remaining vision? This exhibit can help answer these questions."

Main menu for exhibit's interactive touchscreen program

A highlight of the exhibit — an innovative interactive multimedia touchscreen program — explains the causes of low vision; offers personal accounts of people living with low vision; and provides a self-assessment to help people determine if they or someone they know may have low vision. An animated character guides the audience through the program, and short videos provide "hands-on" advice. The multimedia touchscreen program recently received an award for "improving access and eliminating health disparities" at Technology Games 2000, a national competition for developers of interactive health applications. Judges called NEI's interactive program "an accessible application, with clean graphics and material at appropriate reading levels for its audiences." The Technology Games are sponsored by DHHS, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. NEI is looking at other ways the interactive program could be made accessible to consumers such as through a stand-alone CD-ROM format and NEI's web site.

For more information about the Low Vision Traveling Exhibit, contact Jean Horrigan, 496-5248 or search the Low Vision Education web site at

How Do I Know If I Have Low Vision?

There are many signs that can signal vision loss. For example, even with your glasses, do you have difficulty:

  • Recognizing faces of friends and relatives?
  • Doing things that require you to see well up close, like reading, cooking, sewing, or fixing things around the house?
  • Picking out and matching the color of your clothes?
  • Doing things at work or home because lights seem dimmer than they used to?
  • Reading street and bus signs or the names of stores?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, see your eye care professional immediately. Vision changes like these could be early warning signs of eye disease. Usually, the earlier your problem is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment and keeping your remaining vision.

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