What you should know about visual impairment and blindness

1. What is visual impairment and blindness?

Visual impairment is a condition in which an individual has difficulty seeing or has limited sight because of impairment to the eye itself, the optic nerves, or the visual cortex. Visual impairment is divided into “blindness,” which refers to having significant limitations on visual capabilities or no visual information, and “low vision,” meaning visual acuity may be aided by use of enlarged letters and other low vision aids. Another form of visual impairment is color blindness, which is an inability to distinguish between colors such as red and green.
Blindness and low vision cover more than visual acuity. Blindness includes the inability to distinguish between light and dark and between dark and light, or to distinguish between waved and still hands, or to tell the number of fingers held up in front of the eyes.
“Low vision” also low visual acuity, a narrow field of vision, the inability to tolerate bright light, and being able to see in the light but not at night or in the dark.

Those with low visual acuity perceive surroundings using no visual information such as voice, sense of touch, and sense of smell. Those with low or no visual acuity supplement these senses with PCs, text-reading software, and Braille. To increase mobility, they use canes, guides, and guide dogs.

Those with some visual acuity expand their vision through visual aids, enlarged letters, close-up viewing, or PCs. Those with low visual acuity may also have difficulty seeing distant, small, or moving objects and or all of a large object. They may also need extra time for reading and writing, which may place extra strain on them.
Many individuals with visual impairment may not be identified as such because they do not use the white cane identified with visual impairment.

2. Interacting with individuals with visual impairment or individuals who are blind

As stated above, individuals with visual impairment may not be easily identified as having vision problems.

When visual impairment becomes a consideration, such as in support work, ask how well the person can see and what support is needed. In doing so, keep the following in mind:

◆ Addressing the person
Approaching from the front, introduce yourself by saying “Hello, Mr./Ms. Xxx. I’m Yyy.” If they have not noticed you, touch them lightly on the shoulder or arm.

◆Guiding the person
・ Gestures and demonstrative phrases may have no meaning to a person who cannot see. Use specific wording such as “to your right” or “as big as a rice bowl” or “as thick as a newspaper.”
・ When describing an object, have the person touch or hold it.
・ Explain directions or locations based on the direction in which the person is facing.
・ When arriving at a new or unfamiliar place, explain the room or area layout and seating specifically, such as “We are in a classroom with desks arranged in a square. There are 30 desks and half of them are occupied.”
・ When walking, tell the person abut specific landmarks – “City Hall is across the street from this bus stop” or “There’s a gas station on the corner just ahead and to our left” – so that they can tell others when asking the way.
・ Briefly explain wall posters or videos.

◆Talking in a group
・ A person with visual impairment or those who are blind cannot visually identify those in the group. Start with self-introductions so that everyone becomes familiar at least by voice.
・ A person with visual impairment may talk to someone without knowing whether they are leaving. When leaving your seat or the room, tell the person what you are doing. When joining a conversation, introduce yourself first.
・ A person with visual impairment cannot see who is speaking. If needed, say your name before you speak.

◆ Others
Although persons with visual impairment or who are blind cannot “see” their surroundings, they form images of them that enable them to move around independently and conduct everyday tasks in familiar places, just as sighted people do.
They may be disoriented, however, if a familiar place has been “rearranged” and things are out of place. Avoid blocking usually clear aisles, putting obstacles on Braille blocks, or changing the location of things the person uses regularly.
If the person seems to be having problems or to be at a loss, ask if they need help. Keep in mind that the person may be viewing the world differently than someone who is sighted. Remember, however, that individuals with visual impairment or who are blind are just like anybody else. Visual impairment/blindness is only one aspect of the person – not the person’s entire identity.
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