Understanding Vision Impairment

Most people who have a visual impairment are able to see something. This can vary from being able to distinguish between light and dark, to seeing large objects and shapes, to seeing everything but as a blur, or seeing a patchwork of blanks and defined areas. Visual impairment is a term used to describe all levels of sight loss. It covers moderate sight loss, severe sight loss and blindness.

People are not either sighted or blind; there are different degrees of sight loss and different ways in which sight loss can affect a person’s vision. For example, some conditions, like retinitis pigmentosa (RP), affect the peripheral vision, and others, like age-related macular degeneration (AMD), affect the central vision. Sight loss can affect people of all ages and can have an impact on all aspects of a person’s life: social, school and work, and everyday tasks. A visual impairment can be present at birth, occur at any time from disease or accident or be part of a medical condition or syndrome.

The actual effect of a visual impairment on an individual varies widely, depending on the condition, its progress and the individual’s skills. It is important to remember to ask someone if they require assistance, don’t assume someone needs your help.

Here are some helpful pointers when meeting a person who is blind or visually-impaired:

  • Greet a person by saying your name in case the person does not recognise your voice.
  • Talk directly to the person rather than through a third party and there’s no need to shout!
  • Don’t be afraid to use terms like ‘see you later’, ‘good to see you’, or ‘do you see what I mean?’ People with visual impairments use them as well.
  • Give clear verbal directions, don’t point!
  • Don’t assume that because a person can see one thing that they can see everything.
  • Many partially-sighted people use a white cane or guide dog so don’t assume the person is totally blind.
  • Always let a person know when you are entering or leaving a room, so they are not left talking to themselves.
  • Don’t leave a blind person standing in space – let them have contact with some object such as a chair, desk or a wall.
  • Never distract a guide dog when working (ie. in harness).
  • Someone using a white cane with a red stripe has a hearing impairment as well as a visual impairment.
  • Always ask the person if they would like your help, and if so, allow them to take your arm. It’s useful to talk about what is around the person. Click here for more information about how to guide somebody who has a visual impairment.