Monday, September 12, 2011

High-tech tools help millions with low vision stay active

From USA Today:

As a preteen, Amber McMahon (pictured) was a voracious reader. When she stopped curling up with her favorite books, her family chalked it up to adolescent distractions. When she asked to sit closer to the blackboard in school, her parents worried and began to take her to doctors for her worsening vision.

It wasn't until she was 18 and about to start college that she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration that affects central vision. About 50% of patients with the condition have vision classified as legally blind by age 50.

Today, at 35, McMahon says her central vision is so limited, she "wouldn't recognize my husband if he were a foot away."

STORY: People with low vision can drive
Still, she prides herself "on doing whatever I want to do," which, on a typical day in Venice, Calif., includes teaching yoga and spinning, corresponding with friends, caring for her husband and 1-year-old son, and even driving, using specially prescribed small telescopes mounted on eyeglass frames.

Low-vision rehabilitation introduced McMahon to a variety of vision aids, adaptive technologies and strategies. "Without that service, I'd be lost," she says. "I'm truly a different person because of it."

"The core issue for low-vision rehabilitation is maintaining quality of life," says Sarah Hinkley, chief of Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University.

Low vision is not a direct result of aging, says Dawn Kissner DeCarlo, chair of the American Optometric Association Vision Rehabilitation section and director of the University of Alabama Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation.

It usually "results from eye injuries, birth defects, macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, poorly controlled diabetes and other eye and health conditions," she says.

Tim Michell, 54, a middle-school math teacher and varsity basketball coach in Marion, Mich., was diagnosed with atypical retinitis pigmentosa at age 40. The eye disease has limited his central vision so that "from my elbow to my fist, I can't see anything," he says. "There's a big blank" when he looks ahead.

He paces the sidelines with binoculars to identify players as they race up and down the court. He relies on a 24-inch monitor that magnifies reading material 100 times. To enjoy his wife's wildlife photography, he puts on special magnifying glasses that use his peripheral vision.

"The vision you have is so critical," he says. "You can't dwell on what you don't have."

Michell is among 3.6 million visually impaired Americans over 40, according to a 2008 report by the advocacy group Prevent Blindness America and the federal National Eye Institute.

Given Baby Boomers' higher risk for age-related eye disorders and a dramatic nationwide increase in type 2 diabetes, the National Eye Institute estimates that vision disorders will double in 30 years.

That makes increasing awareness about vision rehabilitation all the more important, Hinkley says.

She asks new patients, "What would you like to do that you can no longer do because of your vision?" She says she wants them to see "that the possibilities are nearly endless."