Living with low vision

Cataracts - what it is like to have cataracts
Cataracts – what it is like to have cataracts
Nearly 2 million people in the UK are affected by low vision, but you can maximise poor eyesight if it’s dealt with properly.

Sonal Rughani is an optometrist and senior adviser at the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People). She explains what low vision is, and how it can be managed properly.

What is low vision?

Low vision is when a person’s sight can’t necessarily be corrected with glasses or contact lenses.

Low vision doesn’t develop just because of old age. Your vision can get worse as a result of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

According to the RNIB, around 2 million people have significant sight loss in the UK.

Very few people have complete ‘black’ blindness, so any remaining eyesight needs to be maximised. People often go to a clinic hoping that a pair of glasses will fix their vision, but this may not always be possible. Low vision is treated by maximising the patient’s eyesight beyond what glasses or contact lenses can achieve.

When should you visit the optician?

Any decline in your sight should be checked by an optician. Signs that you need to seek help include:

colours look a bit washed out

you’re finding it difficult to judge the depth of steps

straight lines look wobbly

you find it hard to read

you’re struggling to see road signs when you’re driving

It’s important not to simply wait for these signs to appear. They’re not just a part of getting older, they’re telling you that something is wrong.

Everyone should visit their optician every two years. Lots of people are entitled to free eye tests, so find out if you’re eligible for free eye care.

What NHS support is available for low vision?

A visit to your optician is a good place to start. If a problem is detected, you’ll be referred to the hospital to see an ophthalmologist (eye doctor). Your GP will be kept informed, and will give you extra support and advice if you need it.

If the eye doctor finds that your vision can’t be improved by medical or surgical treatment, you may be referred to a low-vision clinic. At the clinic, an optometrist can advise you about lighting and low-vision aids. They will also assess you to see if you are eligible to be certified as partially sighted or blind.

Read more about the criteria for certification.

Being told you can’t see (and that glasses or surgery can’t improve your vision) can be a shock. It can be difficult to get used to that level of sight loss, but support is available from your clinic, GP and organisations like the RNIB.

What is a low-vision aid?

A low-vision aid can be one of the following:

An optical low-vision aid, such as illuminated magnifiers, hand-held magnifiers or flat magnifiers. Aids for viewing faraway objects include monoculars and binoculars.

A non-optical low-vision aid, which includes everything from an anglepoise lamp, to bold-print books or liquid level indicators – which beep to stop you burning yourself when using hot water.

During a low-vision assessment, your optometrist will try different magnifiers to see what works for you. For example, they will work out if you need help for sewing, reading music, doing a crossword or reading the headlines in a newspaper.

How do I become registered as partially sighted?

If your vision can’t be improved beyond a certain point, you can register as partially sighted or blind. Your eye doctor will fill out a certificate for you. In England and Wales this is called a Certificate of Visual Impairment (CVI). In Scotland it’s called a BP1, while in Northern Ireland it’s an AP655.

This certificate documents your eye condition and the extent of your vision loss. It will also state whether you need additional support if, for example, because you are living alone.

After you and your doctor sign the form, copies of it will be sent to you, your GP, social services and the National Census. One copy will also be kept in your medical records. Social services can then register you before getting in touch to offer support.

The benefits of registering as partially sighted may include a 50% reduction on your TV licence fee and an extra personal tax allowance.

What can the RNIB do?

The RNIB can support you in lots of different ways. These include offering advice about your eye condition, advice about daily living skills, and information about welfare rights and benefits. The charity also has information about leisure activities, holidays, befriending services and emotional support services, as well as advice on low-vision aids and where you can get them.

The RNIB’s helpline number is 0303 123 9999. Calls cost no more than a standard rate call to an 01 or 02 number. If you need to speak to someone in a language other than English, there are 80 languages available.


Video: cataract animation

This animation explains what cataracts are, and how they affect the eye.