What is legal blindness? Questions and Answers

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Many people hear the term “legal blindness” and have lots of questions. What does it mean? How does it affect someone’s life? Can people who are legally blind still see anything? This article is here to answer all those questions and more. We’re going to talk about what legal blindness really is, how doctors figure out if someone is legally blind, and what life is like for those who are. We’ll also look at the help and tools available for legally blind people. So, let’s dive in and learn together about seeing the world in a different way.

What is legally blind?

Legally blind refers to a level of visual impairment that has been officially defined to determine eligibility for government disability benefits, educational services, and protections against discrimination. It is not synonymous with total blindness; many people who are legally blind have some remaining vision.

What is legally blind?

Legally blind criteria

The criteria for being considered legally blind can vary by country, but in many places, including the United States, it is defined by two main factors:

  1. Visual Acuity: This is a measure of the clarity or sharpness of vision, typically assessed with a Snellen chart, which is the eye chart used by eye care professionals that features lines of letters decreasing in size. Legal blindness is defined as having a visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better-seeing eye with the best possible correction (glasses or contact lenses). This means that what a legally blind person can see at 20 feet, a person with normal vision can see at 200 feet.
  2. Field of Vision: The second criterion is the field of vision or the width of the area a person can see without moving the eyes. Being legally blind can also be defined as having a restricted field of vision of no more than 20 degrees in the widest diameter in the better eye, even with corrective lenses. This is sometimes referred to as “tunnel vision.”

What does 20/200 vision look like

Talking about what 20/200 vision looks like can be hard because everyone sees differently. But to help you understand, if you have 20/200 vision, you need to be 20 feet close to see something clearly that someone with normal vision can see from 200 feet away.

Here’s what having 20/200 vision might feel like:

Blurred Details: Think about trying to read a sign with big letters from far away. If you have normal vision, you might read it from 200 feet away. But with 20/200 vision, you need to come up to 20 feet to read it. Otherwise, the letters just look blurry and you can’t tell them apart.

Trouble Recognizing Faces: If you have 20/200 vision, it might be hard to know who someone is from a bit far away. You need to get much closer to see their face clearly, unlike someone with normal vision who can see it from further back.

Harder Daily Tasks: Doing things that need good vision, like reading regular-sized writing, spotting things far off, or finding your way in new places, can be tough. You might need tools like magnifiers or devices that make things look bigger to help you.

It’s key to remember that having 20/200 vision even with the best glasses or contacts means you are legally blind. This doesn’t mean you can’t see anything, but your vision can’t get better than 20/200. Still, many people with 20/200 vision find ways to adjust and live well using different tools and strategies.

Symptoms of legal blindness

Legal blindness is determined by specific clinical criteria rather than symptoms alone, but there are signs and symptoms associated with the level of vision loss that can lead to a diagnosis of legal blindness. These include:

  1. Significantly Reduced Visual Acuity. Difficulty seeing details at a distance or close up, even with the use of glasses or contact lenses. Inability to recognize faces until they are very close. Struggling to read standard print in books, newspapers, and other printed materials, even with corrective lenses.
  2. Severely Limited Field of Vision. Experiencing “tunnel vision,” where peripheral (side) vision is severely limited, and one can only see what’s directly in front. Difficulty navigating in unfamiliar environments due to a reduced ability to detect obstacles and hazards.
  3. Difficulty with Light Adaptation. Challenges in adjusting to changes in light, such as moving from a dark room to a brightly lit area, or vice versa. Increased sensitivity to bright lights or glare, which may cause discomfort or further reduce visibility.
  4. Problems with Visual Contrast and Color Perception. Difficulty discerning colors, particularly in low light. Trouble seeing contrasts, which makes it hard to detect edges, steps, curbs, and other potential hazards.
  5. Impact on Daily Activities. Difficulty performing tasks that require detailed vision, such as sewing, reading fine print, or distinguishing small objects. Needing to bring objects very close to the eyes or requiring large-print or high-contrast materials to read. Relying more on other senses, like touch or hearing, to compensate for vision loss.
  6. Increased Frequency of Accidents or Injuries. Bumping into objects, tripping, or falling more often due to not seeing obstacles or changes in terrain. Having trouble with tasks that require depth perception, such as climbing stairs or pouring liquids.

Causes of legal blindness

Causes of legal blindness

Legal blindness can result from various eye conditions and diseases. Some of the most common causes include:

  1. Macular Degeneration: This condition affects the central part of the retina (the macula) and leads to loss of central vision. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is particularly common in older adults.
  1. Glaucoma: Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, often due to high pressure in the eye. It can lead to peripheral vision loss and, eventually, central vision loss if not treated.
  1. Diabetic Retinopathy: This complication of diabetes damages the blood vessels of the retina. It can lead to blurred vision, vision loss, and ultimately legal blindness if not properly managed.
  1. Cataracts: Cataracts cause the lens of the eye to become cloudy, leading to a decrease in vision. While cataract surgery can often restore vision, untreated cataracts can lead to legal blindness.
  1. Retinitis Pigmentosa: This group of genetic disorders affects the retina’s ability to respond to light, leading to a progressive loss of vision, starting with peripheral vision.
  1. Optic Nerve Disorders: Conditions that affect the optic nerve, such as optic neuritis or hereditary optic neuropathies, can lead to significant vision loss and legal blindness.
  1. Corneal Opacities: Scarring or clouding of the cornea due to infections, injuries, or diseases can significantly impair vision.
  1. Childhood Blindness Conditions: Conditions like congenital cataracts, congenital glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity, and genetic eye disorders can lead to legal blindness from a young age.

What is considered legally blind in california?

In California, as in the rest of the United States, the standard criteria for legal blindness are consistent with the federal definition. A person is considered legally blind if they meet one of the following criteria, even with the use of corrective lenses:

Visual Acuity: The person’s visual acuity is 20/200 or worse in the better-seeing eye. This means that what a person with normal vision can see clearly at 200 feet, a legally blind individual can only see at a distance of 20 feet.

Field of Vision: The person has a limited field of vision, such that the widest diameter of vision in the better eye is 20 degrees or less. This condition is often referred to as “tunnel vision.”

These standards are used to determine eligibility for various services, benefits, and protections intended for individuals with significant visual impairments. In California, being legally blind can qualify an individual for services through the Department of Rehabilitation, special educational accommodations, and possibly for benefits through programs like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), depending on other eligibility criteria.

How is legal blindness diagnosed?

The diagnosis of legal blindness is determined through a series of evaluations conducted by eye care professionals, such as ophthalmologists or optometrists. These evaluations aim to assess an individual’s visual acuity and field of vision to see if they meet the specific criteria for legal blindness. Here’s a general outline of the process:

An eye care professional will perform a comprehensive eye examination, which includes:

  • Visual Acuity Test: This test measures the sharpness or clarity of vision, typically using a Snellen chart. The chart contains rows of letters that decrease in size, and the individual is asked to read the smallest line of letters they can see from a standard distance, usually 20 feet. The result is expressed in terms of a fraction, with 20/20 being normal vision. If the best-corrected visual acuity (with glasses or contact lenses) in the better eye is 20/200 or worse, it meets one of the criteria for legal blindness.
  • Refraction Test: This test determines the best corrective lenses (glasses or contact lenses) to correct any refractive error, optimizing the person’s vision to its highest potential.
  • Field of Vision Test (Perimetry Test): This test assesses the individual’s field of vision, including peripheral vision. It helps to identify any areas of vision loss or blind spots. Legal blindness criteria include a field of vision that is 20 degrees or narrower in the better eye.

If, after correction with the best possible lenses, the individual’s visual acuity in the better eye is 20/200 or worse, or if the field of vision is 20 degrees or less in the better eye, the person may be diagnosed as legally blind according to the legal definition.

Can you be illegally blind

No, there is no concept of being “illegally blind.” Blindness, whether partial or total, is a medical condition related to one’s health and not subject to legal categorization in terms of legality or illegality. The term “legally blind” is used to describe a specific level of visual impairment that qualifies an individual for certain benefits and protections under the law, but it does not imply that there is an “illegal” counterpart.

Beyond Sight

To sum up our talk about legal blindness, it’s more than just not seeing well. It’s about living life in a special way, using the help and tools out there, and knowing that everyone has their own strengths. Even though legal blindness has its challenges, it also teaches us new ways to understand and connect with the world around us. By learning about and helping people who are legally blind, we make our community a better place for everyone. After all, seeing the world isn’t just with our eyes—it’s about feeling, understanding, and being together in different ways.

What Is Legal Blindness in the UK?

In the UK, you might be classified as legally blind or severely sight impaired if your visual acuity is 3/60 or worse. Alternatively, a visual acuity of 6/60 could also lead to this classification if your field of vision is severely restricted, such as having a significant loss of peripheral vision.

Can People with Legal Blindness See?

Legal blindness doesn’t mean total absence of vision. It refers to a condition where, even with corrective lenses, a person’s visual acuity in the better eye is 6/60 or worse, or the field of vision is narrower than 20 degrees, meaning what they can see at 6 meters, someone with normal vision could see at 60 meters.

How Do Legally Blind Individuals Perceive Their Environment?

The vision of someone who is legally blind can vary widely. Some may perceive light and dark, vague shapes, or colors, while others might have a very narrow field of vision. It’s a misconception that all legally blind individuals experience complete darkness or see nothing but black.