Blindness and low vision

Blindness and low vision refers to reduced vision, vision loss or sight loss that can't be corrected by glasses, medicine or surgery.

Key points

  1. If you have blindness or low vision, you may have different degrees of sight loss such as blind spots, poor night vision or partial loss of vision. 
  2. See your GP, opthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) or optometrist if you notice any changes in your vision or are concerned about your eyesight. 
  3. Regular eye checks and eye examinations are the best way to prevent blindness and vision loss, especially if you have a family history of an eye condition or a medical condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
  4. If you are blind or have low vision, it doesn't mean you have to give up everyday tasks. You can find new ways of doing them and learn how to keep your independence. 
  5. Blind Low Vision NZ can provide a range of services to support your independence and help you cope with blindness and low vision. 

What are the causes of blindness and low vision?

Your eye is a ball in a bony socket with muscles attached to it for your eye movement. From the front, it has a clear window or cornea. Behind that is the pupil, the fluid inside the eye, the lens and, lastly, a light-sensitive membrane called the retina that sends information to your brain through the optic nerve. Problems or damage to any part of the pathway from your cornea to your brain can affect your vision. 

Blindness and low vision can be caused by conditions that only affect your eye or conditions that affect your whole body. Conditions that can cause blindness and low vision include:

Blindness and low vision can happen to anyone but it is more common in older people. 

What are the symptoms of blindness and low vision? 

If you have blindness or low vision, you may have different degrees or types of sight loss.

  • Loss of central vision – there is a dark or blind spot in the centre of your vision. 
  • Loss of peripheral (side) vision – you can't see anything to the side, above or below eye level. This is also called tunnel vision.
  • Night blindness – you cannot see clearly at night or at dark areas such as in the movie theatre. 
  • Blurred or hazy vision – you can still see things but they appear out of focus, cloudy or hazy. 

Things you may find difficult to do when you have blindness or low vision include:

  • reading and writing
  • going up or downstairs
  • seeing a hole, a curb, or pale or coloured print
  • identifying obstacles or landmark
  • moving around 
  • watching TV
  • shopping
  • cooking
  • identifying faces and communicating with others
  • driving 
  • seeing street name signs or pedestrian crossing signals.

See your GP, opthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) or optometrist if you notice any changes in your vision or are concerned about your eyesight. 

How are blindness and low vision diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions related to your vision, including how long you have had vision loss, how it affects your daily activities and whether you have any existing medical condition. Your doctor will then perform an eye examination to check your eye and vision. Your doctor may perform some tests which include using instruments such as magnifiers, slit lamp and special charts to check your vision, depth perception, visual field or pressure in your eye. 

Visual acuity is used to test and check how well you can see from a specific distance. You may recall being asked to read a few letters from a distance by your ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) or optometrist before during an eye check. If you have a visual acuity of 6/24, it means that from a distance of 6 metres you can only see what a person with normal vision can see at 24 metres. 

In New Zealand, about 30,000 people are blind, which means they have a visual acuity of 6/24 or less. Approximately 150,000 New Zealanders have low vision, which means they have a visual acuity between 6/12–6/23. Normal vision is 6/6. 

How are blindness and low vision treated? 

Treatment depends on the cause of your blindness or low vision. Some conditions such as diabetic retinopathy can be treated by laser or eye surgery to restore and improve your vision.

Conditions such as age-related macular degeneration can't be cured but there are visual aids or other treatments to help prevent further loss of vision. 

How can I care for myself and cope with blindness and low vision? 

If you are blind or have low vision, it doesn't mean you have to give up everyday tasks. You can find new ways of doing them and learn how to keep your independence. 

Learning about vision loss

You can take the following steps to learn about your vision loss:

  • Learn as much as possible about the cause of the eye condition you have and how it can affect you.
  • Be prepared to make changes and do things in a different way. 
  • Learn how to cope with change and set realistic goals.
  • Get support and talk to other people with similar visual problems. 
  • Talk to your family/whānau and maintain family and other social activities.
  • Let your family/whānau know if you have a condition that runs in the family.
  • Keep yourself active and learn new skills. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help and advice. 

Managing your daily tasks

If you want to continue to do things, you may need to find different ways of doing them to manage your daily tasks. Here are some examples of ways you can do things differently:

  • Use direct lighting on reading, writing or other detailed tasks by placing a lamp close by or installing extra lights over work surfaces even during the day. 
  • Make sure stairs, bathrooms, kitchen and other areas of your home are well lit. 
  • Use contrast on things to help you see better and easier, eg, pour coffee into white cups or chop dark items (eg, meat) on a light chopping board.
  • Use bright, contrasting labels, dark felt pens, fluoro or raised tactile paint, bump stickers or locator dots on to label the dials of your stove, microwave, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer or remote controls. 
  • Use a rubber band to help you know the difference between shampoo and conditioner. 
  • Paint or tape contrasting strips along the edge of steps and pathways.
  • Wear sunglasses to control glare from indoor or outdoor lights. 
  • See things in enlargement, eg, sit close to the TV, at the front at concerts, presentations and performances. 
  • Increase text size and contrast or use text-to-speech feature on your smartphones or computers. 
  • Make sure your home is safe and eliminate trip hazards on the floor. 
  • Have designated spots for important items like your keys and wallet. 
  • Organise your fridge and pantry consistently. 
  • Fill any forms you need at home before you travel. 
  • Ask your pharmacist to organise your medicines into blister packs with the right dose for the right time of the day. 
  • If you are going out, plan and think ahead about what route you will take and the difficulties you may experience. 

Read more about managing your daily tasks

Low vision aids and devices

Low vision aids and devices are designed to help you see better for a certain task. Examples of low-vision aids and devices include:

  • hand and stand magnifiers
  • illuminated magnifiers
  • spectacle-mounted magnifiers
  • telescopic lenses for both near and far distances
  • glare visors and glassess fitovers.

Don't buy a low-vision aid unless it has been professionally prescribed for you. A low-vision specialist can recommend the best devices for you. You may need multiple aids for different tasks. 

Adaptive technologies

There is a range of features or programmes in electronic devices that can help you cope with low vision. For example:

  • electronic magnifiers in computers or smartphones can magnify content on the screen or scan printed information and magnify it
  • speech recognition software
  • talking GPS or voice-guided directions
  • large-print keyboard
  • apps or programmes in smartphones or tablets designed for people with low vision.

Workbridge is a specialist employment service for people with different types of disability, injury or illness. They provide assistance to find the right equipment or training for your work or study. 

Low vision assessment and rehabilitation

Low vision assessment and rehabilitation aim to assess your condition, reduce the impact of low vision on your daily activities and teach you how to make use of your remaining vision more effectively.

Low vision assessment and rehabilitation services include:

  • an evaluation by your ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) or your optometrist
  • prescription for low-vision aids or devices
  • referral to an occupational therapist to learn new ways of managing your daily tasks
  • mobility and transport services to help you move around your area and unfamiliar places safely
  • support and training to help you manage your daily tasks and keep your independence. 

The University of Auckland Optometry School offers low vision rehabilitation and some hospital eye departments have low vision clinics (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch). Ask your GP, ophthalmologist, optometrist or the Blind + Low Vision Foundation, NZ for a referral to one of these low vision clinics. 

Some optometrists also offer rehabilitation services. Ask your optometrist or find a list of optometrists who offer low vision rehabilitation here

How can I prevent blindness and vision loss?

Regular eye checks and eye examinations are the best way to prevent blindness and vision loss. It is especially important if you have a family history of eye disease or a medical condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure

What support is available with blindness and low vision? 

Living with blindness and vision loss can be challenging. It takes time and effort to learn to cope with low vision. Below are some support services and information for people affected by blindness and low vision and their family/whānau:

Blind + Low Vision NZ offers a range of services to people with blindness and low vision such as counseling, orientation and mobility services, adaptive daily living services, adaptive technology and employment support. 
Kāpō Māori Aotearoa New Zealand Inc. (Ngāti Kāpō) is a member-based society that is open to all people with a disability. The services they offer include vision support services, advice and information about disability services and peer support. 
Parents of Vision Impaired (NZ) Inc. supports parents who have blind or vision impaired children.
Albinism Trust, NZ is a support group for people living with albinism. 
Retina New Zealand Inc. offers peer to peer support for people living with retinal disorders. 
Blind Citizens NZ is New Zealand’s oldest advocacy organisation in the disability sector. 
Glaucoma New Zealand provides resources and information about glaucoma and offers peer support groups for people living with glaucoma. 
Macular Degeneration New Zealand provides resources and information about macular degeneration and has a support helpline 0800 622 852. 

Learn more

Low vision Ministry of Health, NZ 
Overview of low vision HealthInfo Canterbury, NZ
Information for newly diagnosed Blind + Low Vision Foundation, NZ
Tips for living with vision loss Blind + Low Vision Foundation, NZ 

References

  1. Low vision Ministry of Health, NZ 
  2. Overview of low vision HealthInfo Canterbury, NZ
  3. Blindness and Low Vision in New Zealand – Latest statistics Blind + Low Vision Foundation, NZ 
  4. Low vision – the essential guide for opthalmologists The Royal College of Ophthalmologists and The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, UK, 2012

Reviewed by

Martine Abel-Williamson QSM is a disability advocate, accessibility consultant and policy advisor. She has held numerous governance and other leadership roles in the disability area, nationally and internationally. She is a member of the Health Quality and Safety Commission Consumer Network, as well as one of the Health Consumer Advisory Service members.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Martine Abel-Williamson, QSM Last reviewed: 10 Sep 2020