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What is Low Vision and How Can You Make the Best of It?

Blind Man on Bench

Whether you have been diagnosed with "low vision" or know someone who has, Lisa Ord, PhD, LCSW, director of the John A. Moran Eye Center's Patient Support Program, wants you to know the facts about this often-misunderstood condition.

Here are her answers to some of the most common questions:

What is low vision?

The terms low vision or visual impairment cover a lot of territory. We use them interchangeably to describe poor vision your doctor cannot fix with standard eyeglasses, contacts, medication, or surgery. Low vision can interfere with your ability to do everyday activities.

It can happen at any age, but our risk of vision loss increases dramatically as we grow older. Causes include age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy.

Signs of low vision include difficulty recognizing faces, getting around a supermarket, choosing clothing and matching colors, cooking, and adjusting dials—many of the things we take for granted with good vision.

So it doesn't necessarily mean blindness?

No, it doesn't mean total blindness. Only about five percent of people with visual impairment are entirely blind, with no light perception.

What's one of the first things you want people with low vision, and their family and friends, to know?

Millions of Americans lose some of their sight every year, but that doesn't mean they have to lose their independence or give up on things they love to do. Here in Utah, we have access to a wealth of nonprofit services for adults with low vision through the Utah Council of the Blind. These include discount cab coupons and a driver-guide program, as well as free Braille transcription for personal print materials.

What does the Moran Eye Center Patient Support Program offer?

As a team of doctors, therapists, and social workers, our program offers no-cost seminars and support groups in addition to fee-based services, including individual counseling and vision rehabilitation. Our certified occupational therapist can assess a home and help create ways to make it easier for someone with low vision to get around and live independently.

The goal of our patient support team at Moran is to let people know that, despite no longer being able to drive, read, shop, or cook the way they used to, they don't have to give up. We have "workarounds" for many of those activities. The same goes for reorienting a passion—whether it's bird-watching or painting. Bird watchers can become more attuned to bird calls; artists can explore and discover other mediums.

Our no-cost Orientation to Low Vision Seminar is a great place to start and is open to all.

What are some examples of workarounds?

We start by helping people learn to maximize their usable vision—whatever they have to work with. At one level, it might be finding the right magnifying tools and the best lighting for close-up work.

Smartphones offer an incredible number of options for enlarging type and accessing helpful apps, and computer technology geared to the visually impaired is getting better all the time.

We help people access whatever works for them. In some instances, it's as simple as putting bump-dots on a microwave oven or positioning a reading table and magnifier in the right light.

What else should we know about low vision?

It's important to treat people with low vision as you would treat anyone else. Low vision does not mean low ability but realize that vision loss of any kind not only impacts individuals physically and functionally. It also affects them and their families emotionally—so the more awareness we have around these issues, the better.