Open Your Eyes to Visual Impairments
This week kicked off with National White Cane Day, so it would seem appropriate to shed some light on visual impairments.
Monday brought another National White Cane Day in the U.S. Closer to home, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston and the Manatee County Commissioners put forth proclamations that also designated White Cane Safety Day in Manatee County and the city of Bradenton.
The White Cane Law has been in effect since the 1930’s and provides for safe travel for anyone using a mobility device (i. e. white cane or guide dog) by giving them the right-of-way when crossing the street.
As of June 2012, the World Health Organization estimated the number of people with visual impairment to be 285 million: Wow, 285 million! The U.S. alone has more than 25 million people with vision impairments, with the most prevalent causes being cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. At Southeastern Guide Dogs, we have students who suffer from these conditions as well as others.
Cataracts cause a clouding of the lens of the eye, resulting in blurry vision, fading colors, glare, night blindness, double vision and frequent changes to eye prescription. It affects more than 22 million people in the United States. They are more frequent in older people and the National Institutes of Health claim that by the age of 80, more the half the people in the US will either have a cataract or will have had surgery to correct a cataract.
Approximately 2.3 million Americans have glaucoma; a condition that is caused by increased pressure of the fluid in the eye that damages the optic nerve. Since there are no symptoms at first, the condition can go untreated. Actually, it is estimated that an additional 2 million people have glaucoma, but don’t even realize it. However, the good news is that a comprehensive eye exam can detect it.
Damage from glaucoma results in a narrowing of the field of vision, making it appear as if you are viewing the world through a straw. There is no cure for glaucoma, but early detection and treatment can control it before blindness occurs.
Macular degeneration causes damage to the macula (as you probably guessed from the name). Damage to this area of the eye impacts the sharp central vision, thus affecting the ability to read, drive, watch television and do every day tasks with ease. Interestingly enough, macular degeneration typically does not affect peripheral vision, rather it creates dim vision or a blind spot in the center of the visual field. While there is no cure, drug therapy, surgery and other treatments may slow the progression of the disease.
Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited condition that causes degeneration of the retina. This is progressive and leads to decreased night vision, gradual loss of peripheral vision and, in some cases, loss of central vision as well. People with retinitis pigmentosa usually have night blindness first, followed by increasingly small tunnel vision. While there is no cure or universally agreed-upon treatment, the disease typically progresses at a slow enough rate for the person to prepare for the coming loss of sight.
Quick Tips & Etiquette
Here at Southeastern Guide Dogs we spend time with people with varying degrees of visual impairment, so we get used to doing the little things that make life easier for them during their stay. For those of you who have not had the opportunity to work with a blind person, here are some things to keep in mind.
If you see someone who you believe is blind, please do not assume that they need help with whatever task they happen to be doing – chances are, they are just fine. But if you see they are in need of assistance, ask if you can help.
If you enter a room where there is a blind person, identify yourself. Same goes when you exit a room.
If you are asked to explain your surroundings or give directions, be specific and think of painting a mental picture for them. Avoid terms like “over there.” Rather, use directional cues or the clock face method to describe the area (this method is also handy for dining – “your water is at 1:00”).
If they have a guide dog, remember, when that harness is on, the dog is working and should be ignored – we have a puppy raiser who likens the harness to Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.
Most of all, just remember that blindness does not make someone less capable, they just have to approach things from a different angle.
The next time you are about to cross a busy street, think how it would feel to cross that same street without your vision – it’s a daunting task to contemplate. Or, the next time you sit down to eat, close your eyes and see how you would do if you didn’t have sight – better yet, join us at Dining in the Dark on November 3, 2012 at University Park Country Club for an eye-opening dining experience. (Information can be found at www.guidedogs.org/dininginthedark.)