When someone suddenly loses all or parts of their vision, there are mental, physical and practical adjustments required in order to navigate that new reality. And, there are people equipped with techniques, gadgets and services to help in that adjustment offered at the Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located at 8770 Manchester Rd. in Brentwood.
“We are basically about health and safety, and that is what helps lead to independence and having someone remain independent, whether it’s in their own home, apartment or even assisted living,” said David Ekin, president of the Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 12 million people are visually impaired to some degree. The National Federation for the Blind reports there are 93,600 blind or visually impaired school-age children in the United States and that 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, with a central vision of 20/200 or with a visual field of 20 degrees or less. It is estimated that an additional 75,000 people in the U.S. will become blind or visually impaired each year.
The predominance of blindness increases sharply by age – 65 years of age or, for African Americans, age 40 and older. African Americans, Hispanics, and people who are at greater risk for developing diabetes, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma are at higher risk for blindness and vision impairment.
“About 80 percent of our clients are above age 60 and older, so we are dealing a lot with age-related eye conditions,” Ekin said. Of those, he said, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are two conditions that are more prevalent in the African-American community.
He said the number of people expected to have vision problems in the next decade is anticipated to double as the Baby Boomers age and that diabetic retinopathy is beginning to be diagnosed in the younger population.
Many conditions may contribute to blindness, including strokes; hypertension in parts of the eye and its blood vessels; autoimmune, brain and nerve disorders; malnutrition; sickle cell anemia; cataracts; glaucoma; detached retina; and macular degeneration.
“The macular degeneration is the most prevalent; that is the highest percent that we see,” he said. Caucasians are at higher risk for macular degeneration than other ethnic groups. About 30 percent of their patients have at least two eye conditions.
As with many diseases, most of the major blinding eye diseases do not have symptoms in their earlier stages, when interventions are most useful. Just as regular eye exams are an important part of protecting and preserving vision, early detection and treatment can reduce the risk.
However, it is estimated that half of all blindness can be prevented.
Screening and early treatment for vision issues are available at the Society, and many services are free, at no cost to Medicaid-eligible clients, offered on a sliding scale and billable to insurance. The organization is funded through donations and fundraisers, grants, foundations and endowments.
He said clients do not need a doctor’s referral for services; they will call and get a referral if needed.
The office includes the Drews Low Vision Clinic that is staffed with an optometrist and a therapist doing exams “to see what vision a person has remaining and how to best use it, and different devices that can be used to help,” Ekin said.
This may involve assistive technology, learning how to use a computer, tablet, internet or email – or learning programs that enlarge print or images, convert to speech, or a combination.
They also offer a variety of in-home and community-based services around adapting the home environment , safety and health issues at home, and getting around safely if a person needs help around the community in public transportation. They also offer transportation to their offices.
“We will provide transportation, and that’s either through a driver that we have or we will use taxis,” Ekin said. “And if a person is able to, we ask for a $10 donation, but that’s on a purely volunteer basis.”
Intake social workers screen clients to get a sense of what services they may want or need.
“Sometimes the social workers will also go into the home to do the intake to work with them because there is nothing better than a person’s home environment to see how they are actually operating – how the lighting is – those types of things,” he said.
Even with pronounced visual impairment, Ekin said clients could benefit from vision rehabilitation, environmental modifications, and assistive devices that maximize their residual vision.
“We say even if they can’t be treated there are still things that can help, whether it’s magnifiers or other technology or just learning to do things differently,” he said.
The society also offers support groups to learn, to adjust and to cope.
“We do have support groups to help people adjust. Sometimes, the best way to learn is from someone else in the same shoes as you are,” Ekin said. “Our support groups are six to eight weeks at a time. You get educated, learn about it, what resources are, what you can do and I think that makes a big impact for a lot of people also. Just knowing they are not alone.”
It only takes a phone call to get the ball rolling, Ekin said.
“We try to make it as user-friendly as possible,” he said. “We hear too many times, ‘I should have come sooner.’”
To set up an appointment to maximize remaining vision or for more information, call 314-968-9000 or visit www.SLSBVI.org.