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Technology Helps Children See the World More Clearly

The UAB Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation partners with Sight Savers America to provide vision evaluations and free assistive devices for children whose families might otherwise not be able to afford that care.

In cases where vision can’t be restored, the Center strives to help patients maximize use of their remaining vision through rehabilitation. Children with vision impairment that cannot be remedied surgically or with medication need tools to assist them with everyday visual tasks.

“We look for tools that will allow these children to do all the things you and I do without any extra effort,” says Dawn DeCarlo, OD, MS, MSPH, director of the Center and an associate professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology. “The broadest, easiest-to- remember definition of ‘low vision’ is vision that is not adequate for your needs. We identify and evaluate children’s needs based on their unique visual system, their hobbies, and their activities. It’s highly individualized care. Some kids need bifocals even at a young age; another may need a magnifier or even a video magnifier.

A video magnifier (EVM) is an expensive device. Like many assistive devices used in low vision rehabilitation, EVMs are not covered by insurance. That’s where UAB’s collaboration with Sight Savers America, an Alabama-based organization that provides vision-assistive technology and other eye care services to low-income children, pays off.

 

No Child Left Behind’

“Before Sight Savers was providing EVMs, the machine was out of reach for families,” DeCarlo says. “It costs between $2,000 and $3,000. Now Sight Savers is there to provide what they need, so no child is being left behind with vision impairment in Alabama. They just need to be identified, and they’ll get what they need. Sight Savers believes in evaluation, so our collaboration ensures that the money is spent in the best possible way.”

The importance of these tools is underscored by eye fatigue concerns that recently have been highlighted in research specific to children with low vision.

“Our National Institutes of Health-funded research has found that many children with vision impairment suffer from symptoms of visual fatigue,” she says. “Their main coping mechanism is holding things very close to see them. Do that all day and you will have eyestrain. So instead of studying 30 minutes more to get an A, a student stops studying due to tired eyes and settles for the B.”

That’s a key issue for many parents of children with low vision. Apart from inconvenience and quality of life issues, any obstacle to reading is an obstacle to success in school. A high-tech assistive device can help a child almost completely surmount that obstacle.

“The amazing thing about the electronic video magnifier is that it gets so much text up on the screen at one time, you can actually sit back and read comfortably,” DeCarlo says. “If a kid can read 50 words per minute holding a book two inches away from her face, but she reads 150 words per minute with a video magnifier, homework time just got dramatically reduced. That’s when we hear parents saying, ‘I don’t have to fight with them to do their homework anymore.’”

Increased Independence

DeCarlo notes that parents find creative solutions to help their children with homework, but the EVM provides an independent solution.

“A child can do homework like the other kids without sitting next to a mom, dad, grandparent, or whoever has to be their eyes,” she says. “But being completely independent is a skill they will need when they go off to college.”

Helping patients achieve independence, or at least move beyond total dependence, is the core purpose of the rehabilitative efforts at the Center. That’s why the phrase “life-changing” is an expression used by those who have enjoyed success there.

Sight Savers and UAB used their partnership to organize a day-long clinic that changed numerous lives by providing more than 10 children with assistive devices free of charge. The clinic functions as a one-stop shop, offering evaluation, training, and assistive devices.

“It is a great day for families,” DeCarlo says. “They can go home with all the visual tools they need that day. So we see a lot of smiles around here.”

Click here to learn more about the UAB Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation.