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October is Blind Awareness Month

Sight is something many of us take for granted. As we grow older, most of us will need glasses. Few will lose their eyesight to the extent that they are registered with a disability “sight-impaired” or even blind. Although blindness is a condition about which the overwhelming majority of us are aware, few can really comprehend what being blind means. This is what Blind Awareness Month is about.

About Blind Awareness Month

Blind Awareness Month is the brainchild of an American charity called Little Rock Foundation. Their cause is to help blind children get through life and advocating for rights and measures in schools and workplaces. However, Blind Awareness Month is now a global phenomenon and not just for children, but anyone – men and women, young and old, regardless of colour, suffering with blindness.

Rocco Fiorentino, founded Little Rock in 1997. Born 4 months premature, and weighing just 1lb, he spent the first 6 months of his life in hospital. He was also a twin, but the other died in childbirth. It is believed that the high levels of oxygen required to keep Rocco alive caused his blindness. Today, he is a much-celebrated figure in the blind community and receives many accolades and awards for his advocacy work.

Blindness Awareness WeekWhat Is Blindness and Visual Impairment?

The RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) is the UK’s largest organisation representing both blind and sight impaired. What is the difference? Contrary to popular belief, to be considered blind it is not obligatory that you can see nothing. It depends on the level and extent of sight (or lack of).

A Consultant Ophthalmologist makes the determination based on a series of tests. In simple terms, they will test the visual acuity (the vision we use when focusing on something – it helps us to see detail) and visual field (peripheral vision when looking straight ahead).

Both are physical disabilities, but in order to be considered blind, the person taking the test must record the following results:

  • 3/60 or less for visual acuity and full visual field
  • Between 3/60–6/60 with a severely reduced field of vision on the visual acuity test. Tunnel vision is one such criterion
  • 6/60 or above visual acuity with a severely restricted field of vision. For example, the individual may have no sight in the lower or upper field of vision

Sight impairment criteria are:

  • As above, visual acuity between 3/60 and 6/60 but must have a full field of vision
  • 6/24 registered in the visual acuity test with field of vision designated moderate. Typically, this will be cloudiness or blurring in the peripheral vision
  • 6/18 for visual acuity. If you register a better score than this, you could still qualify as sight impaired if or even better if a large part of your peripheral vision has severe impairment or is completely missing

UK Blindness Statistics

According to the RNIB, over 2 million people are registered blind or sight impaired in the UK. Around 218,000 – that’s 10% – were registered blind, meaning they had no sight at all. A report for the NHS in 2014 recorded that due to our longevity, the number of people with a condition that could lead to blindness or sight impairment is expected to grow in the coming decade. This is a major health concern, and one that may be preventable.

  • England has the larger population and therefore the largest number of registered blind people – around 298,000
  • There has been a drop in the number of blind-registered people since 2008 by around 10,000. The reason for this is not clear

There is some debate over whether the hearing of a blind person is better than that of a sighted person. Blind people do report having to rely much more heavily on their other senses, of which hearing is the most important. A recent study in the US demonstrated that, on average, blind people have enhanced echolocation. This is reading sound waves to determine a position. Humans can do it, although ours is poor compared to other animals. Blind people are slightly more attuned to this sense.