What does it mean to have vision problems?

Words like “visual impairment,” “low vision,” and “legally blind” describe different problems with seeing clearly. Knowing the difference matters for getting the right medical care and tools to help.

Catching and treating eye problems early is very important. People can see better and make the most of their sight with special devices and ways of doing things.

Visual Acuity Tests

Visual acuity refers to your eyesight’s clarity. Doctors use visual acuity tests to check how well you see things near and far away.

Optometrist William Smith, OD, from the UPMC Vision Institute, explains, “We use visual acuity tests to evaluate your eyesight and your ability to see near and far distances. The most common test is a letter chart with rows of letters that decrease in size from top to bottom. We ask patients to read the chart using both eyes and with each eye individually.”

Eye doctors give the test results as a fraction like 20/20. For example:

  • 20/20 vision means that your vision is normal at 20 feet away from an object.
  • 20/40 vision means that you would need to stand 20 feet away from an object that a person with normal vision could see at 40 feet.

Visual acuity is usually recorded as:

  • “Uncorrected,” which is without glasses or contact lenses.
  • “Best corrected,” which is with the best possible glasses or contact lens prescription.

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Eye Diseases Defined

Visual impairment

This is a broad term that includes any problem with seeing. It can be not seeing clearly, having blind spots, or trouble with colors.

Low vision

Low vision means your best visual acuity is around 20/70 or worse even with regular glasses or contacts. Low vision makes everyday tasks hard. But it doesn’t cause complete blindness. In the past, they called this partial sight or partial blindness.

People with low vision have trouble with things like:

  • Reading regular print in books, signs, etc.
  • Seeing facial expressions from a distance.
  • Distinguishing colors or contrast.
  • Avoiding falls due to poor depth perception.
  • Walking down steps or curbs without tripping.

The National Eye Institute says about three million Americans over age 40 have low vision. As more Baby Boomers cross age 65, that number keeps rising. Low vision often starts slowly due to an eye condition and worsens over the years.

Legal blindness

Legal blindness means that even with the best glasses or contacts, your vision is worse than 20/200 in your better eye.

Besides very blurry vision, legally blind people also often lose peripheral or side vision. Their field of view shrinks to less than 20 degrees or forms a narrow tunnel shape. This tunnel vision makes mobility and safety very difficult.

The American Optometric Association says over one million Americans are legally blind. The main causes are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetes, and cataracts.

Surgery, glasses, contacts, or medicine alone cannot correct poor vision like this. If normal eyeglasses or contact lenses improve your poor vision to 20/20, doctors cannot consider you legally blind.

Reasons Behind Vision Problems

Poor vision can come from injuries, diseases, or genetics. Understanding the cause is the first step in finding the right help or treatment.

  • Injuries: Accidents can harm the eyes, leading to vision problems.
  • Diseases: Glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy are examples. Poorly controlled diabetes is a top cause of blindness among young adults.
  • Genetics: Sometimes, vision problems run in families.

Impact on Daily Life and Mental Health

Having trouble with your vision can affect more than just how well you can see. It can make you feel lonely, frustrated, or sad.

For example, not being able to drive anymore can make someone feel like they’ve lost their freedom. Kids might find it hard to play their favorite sports or feel different from their friends.

That’s why it’s not just about treating the eyes. Support for emotional well-being is also key. Talking to a counselor or joining a support group can make a big difference.

However, vision issues don’t mean you can’t succeed in school or at work. There are lots of tools and people ready to help. Schools can provide large print or audiobooks; workplaces can adjust screens or lighting.

Ways to Help Visually-impaired People

Harness technology

Special technology devices can improve daily function for visually impaired people. They include:

  • Electronic magnifiers and high-powered prescription glasses. They bring text and objects into focus. Glasses range from basic, high-magnification lenses to smart glasses. Smart glasses have a built-in camera and display enlarged images on small LCD screens in the lenses.
  • Audiobooks and text-to-speech software. They provide access to print books and other reading materials.

Use rehabilitation services

  • Mobility training. The training teaches safe navigation. It covers skills and techniques like shorelining (a cane technique), protective techniques, and the proper use of a cane.
  • Occupational therapy. OT helps daily living, like cooking, cleaning, and personal care, to be safer and easier without relying on vision.

Search community resources

Many groups and websites offer help and advice to people with vision problems and their families. They can connect you with resources and support. These include training for using assistive devices or finding a job.

Raise awareness and advocacy

Raising awareness about vision problems is important. Advocating for accessibility is, too. It helps make sure that schools, workplaces, and public spaces are inclusive. This makes it easier for everyone to fully participate in society.

Early Detection and Prevention

Catching eye problems early can stop them from getting worse. That’s why regular eye exams are so important, especially for people with diabetes or a family history of eye problems.

“We recommend having an exam at least every two years,” Dr. Smith says. “However, please contact your eye doctor anytime you notice changes in your vision.”

The UPMC Vision Institute also offers low-vision services. They help people with poor vision use their remaining vision, improving daily activities and quality of life.

To learn more, visit the UPMC Vision Institute website. Or, call 412-647-2200 to make an appointment.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Vision Institute

The UPMC Vision Institute is a national leader in the treatment of eye diseases and disorders. We seek to improve and restore your vision to help your quality of life, diagnosing and treating a wide range of conditions in both children and adults. Our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We also offer routine eye screenings and have full-scale optical shops. Find an eye expert close to you.