Visual Impairment

Visual impairment represents a special needs issue for moms of many children. In fact, the American Foundation for the Blind estimates that some 10 million people in the United States are visually impaired, many of them children.

While many individuals experience some form of vision loss later in life, visual impairment in babies and children is a unique challenge, in that it can affect a child's development.

What is Visual Impairment?

Visual impairment is a broad term that encompasses any type of vision loss, whether partial or total (blindness). Severe or total vision loss occurs when one or more parts of the eye are affected. In such cases, the area of the brain that processes images suffers damage or disease, thereby requiring medical treatment.

Blindness refers to total loss of vision while the term legal blindness refers to extremely low vision. A person who is legally blind must stand 20 feet away from an object so that she may see it at the same quality as an individual with perfect vision would see it from 200 feet away.

What Causes Vision Loss?

There are a variety of causes of visual impairment.

In babies, congenital blindness - blindness that is present at birth - can be inherited in a number of ways. Infections such as the German measles can cause congenital blindness, as the disease is transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy. Congenital blindness can also be hereditary.

Common causes of visual impairment after birth include:

  • amblyopia: this condition results in decreased vision in one eye. Amblyopia results from the decreased use of one eye during early childhood. This is because in some infants one eye may focus better; as a result, the brain stops sending messages to the weaker eye, thereby hindering its development. Amblyopia is more commonly known as lazy eye. Misaligned or crossed eyes (a condition that is medically referred to as strabimus) is the cause of amblyopia, as strabismus causes the brain to ignore messages sent to it by one of the misaligned eyes.
  • cataracts: this condition results in the development of cloudy regions in the lens, thereby preventing light from passing through and leading to loss of vision. While cataracts usually don't develop until late adulthood, some babies have congenital cataracts. Symptoms of cataracts include blurry or double vision, faded colors and difficulty seeing in poorly lit spaces.
  • cortical vision loss: this is the most common cause of vision loss in young children (ages 1-3). Cortical vision loss occurs when brain impairment results in abnormal visual responses and structure. A child with cortical vision loss will not respond normally to faces and will not be able to fixate on an object; the child will also not be able to reach for objects within vision. Causes of this condition include infection (such as meningitis), vere epilepsy and trauma to the brain. Cerebral palsy can accompany this eye condition.
  • diabetic retinopathy: diabetes is the cause of this vision loss condition. Because individuals with diabetic retinopathy at first demonstrate no symptoms, it can be hard to diagnose; however, the condition can be very serious and can even lead to blindness. Young children and teenagers with diabetes should have regular eye examinations to prevent diabetic retinopathy, as well as monitor their blood pressure levels and maintain their blood sugar levels at a healthy level. Not smoking also minimizes the risk of developing this condition.
  • glaucoma: results in increased pressure in the eye, a condition which leads to optic nerve damage. While glaucoma usually affects older adults, babies can be born with glaucoma and children and teens can also develop it.
  • macular degeneration: a condition which results in the deterioration of the macular, the most sensitive area of the retina. Macular degeneration results in reduced central vision and can occur in children. Symptoms of this condition include difficulty reading or watching TV, as well as distorted vision in which straight lines appear as wavy or the size of objects is inaccurate.
  • trachoma: Chlamydia trachomatis, a contagious microorganism, is what causes trachoma. Trachoma is characterized by inflammation of the eye. It predominantly affects individuals living in rural areas that are overcrowded and that have limited access to water and sanitation; it is now nearly non-existent in the United States.

Vision Impairment Diagnosis

If you or your child thinks that she may have a visual impairment problem, you should visit an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in the examination, diagnosis and treatment of vision disease and damage.

An ophthalmologist will analyze the structure of the eyes as well as perform a variety of tests in order to assess your child's vision:

  • visual acuity test: assesses vision at different distances using a reading eye chart
  • visual field test: measures peripheral (side) vision
  • tonometry test: assesses fluid pressure inside of the eye in order to test for glaucoma

Vision Loss Treatment

There are a number of different treatments available for children with loss of vision, including eyeglass or contacts and medicine such as eye drops. For children with cataracts, surgery is the most effective treatment. During surgery, the cloudy lens is removed and replaced with an intraocular lens, an artificial lens made of plastic that restores vision.

For children with blindness, vision aid methods, such as guide dogs and Braille, are instrumental tools. Voice-recognition software and microscopic or telescopic eyeglasses can help children with vision loss, particularly in making schoolwork easier.

Learn about visual impairment activities that can help your child develop important skills here.

Chat with other parents who have children with vision problems in our forum.