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Vol. LXV, No. 9
April 26, 2013
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NIH Program Focuses on Accommodations for Low Vision

Teresa Shea, a member of the campus group 3 Blind Mice, which helped organize the event. NEI’s Cheri Wiggs (l) and Debbie Hill, a research social worker with NIAAA and member of 3 Blind Mice.

Teresa Shea, a member of the campus group 3 Blind Mice, which helped organize the event.


NEI’s Cheri Wiggs (l) and Debbie Hill, a research social worker with NIAAA and member of 3 Blind Mice.

Photos: Ernie Branson

Life goes on, despite vision loss.

Millions of men, women and children are affected by low vision or blindness and face daily difficulties. But help, often in the form of assistive technologies, adaptive devices and perhaps most important, rehabilitative training, can improve the situation for many. That was the theme of “Going Blind and Going Forward…When There Is No Cure,” a program sponsored by the National Eye Institute and the group 3 Blind Mice, held recently in Lipsett Amphitheater.

According to NEI, low vision means that even with glasses, contact lenses, medicine or surgery, one’s visual acuity cannot be corrected. Whether the vision loss is sudden or progressive, people find that everyday activities such as cooking, reading, crossing the street, using a computer or even watching television become difficult and require new skills. Low vision is most often the result of an eye disease, injury to the eye or other health condition. Leading causes include macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, optic neuritis, albinism and cataract. One out of three people age 65 and older experience a low-vision disorder.

The well-attended NIH event focused largely on the film Going Blind, directed and produced by Joseph Lovett, who has glaucoma. While depicting his own “emotional rollercoaster,” due to progressive loss of sight, Lovett chronicled the lives of several other people living with low vision or blindness and how each one has overcome or successfully adapted to vision loss.

“You learn to use what you have,” said Jessica, a young woman featured in the film, who lost her vision in a matter of months from diabetic retinopathy. A teacher and former artist, the spry New Yorker relies largely on her guide dog Chef to help navigate the outside world. With vision that is restricted to light and shadow only, Jessica learns how to utilize assistive technologies such as JAWS, a screen reader for computer use, and Kurzweil, an optical character recognition program to navigate the computer and read her mail. Learning new skills and non-visual techniques, she continues life as an artist, teaching photography to both sighted students and those with vision loss.

Wiggs is a low-vision and rehabilitation specialist with NEI. Panelist Hill appears with Dr. Fredric Schroeder, research professor at San Diego State University and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia.

Wiggs is a low-vision and rehabilitation specialist with NEI.


Panelist Hill appears with Dr. Fredric Schroeder, research professor at San Diego State University and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia.

Ray is another person chronicled in the documentary. Diagnosed with RP, a disease affecting one out of every 4,000 people in the U.S., he teaches others who are visually impaired or blind how to use guide dogs. Although “man’s best friend” can be a valuable tool for those with vision loss, proper training and practice are crucial for mastering this skill. Most people with blindness or low vision use long white canes to navigate; only a small percentage use guide dogs, noted Lovett. He added that, although assistance is available through a variety of means, “the hardest hurdle can be asking for such help.”

Other patients shown in the documentary include Steve, a young soldier who was blinded by a roadside bomb during war; Emmet, a child born with albinism; and Bob, an older man diagnosed with optic neuritis. All benefited from learning what resources are available, vision rehabilitation, skills training and assistive technologies.

The film’s message is that there is hope; vision loss is not life-ending, productivity-ending or dream-ending.

After the film, the audience participated in Q&A with a panel that included NIH’ers with vision loss. The employees are members of 3 Blind Mice, a blind/low-vision resource sharing group that was established following the showing of Going Blind in 2011. The group has grown from 3 to over 70 members since its establishment. 3 Blind Mice is open to all who are interested, whether blind, low vision or sighted. For more information on the group, contact Teresa Shea at sheatm@mail.nih.gov or (301) 402-3855.


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