Low Vision and Blindness: Causes and Prevention (page 2)
Medical technology is helping to identify more specific causes of disabilities, information that may then lead to either cures or preventive measures. For example, two causes of visual disabilities were reduced dramatically during the last part of the 20th Century: retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and rubella. Today, precaution are being taken to prevent many cases of ROP in low birth weight babies, and when ROP is not prevented, it often can be corrected with eye surgery. Today, a vaccine protects everyone from rubella, a cause of congenital visual disabilities and also of multiple disabilities.
Almost half of the children who are blind have the disability because of prenatal factors, mostly hereditary. Researchers are working to identify genes that cause some forms of blindness. The gene that causes retinitis pigmentosa has now been located and isolated, and there is hope for a cure in the near future. Other medical advances—such as laser treatment, surgery, and corneal implants—also help to reduce the incidence of visual disabilities among children or to lessen their severity. Although medical advances have reduced the prevalence of visual disabilities in children, medical technology can cause increases in this disability as well. Today more infants survive premature birth and very low birth weights of even less than two pounds. The result, however, is often the child having multiple disabilities, frequently including visual disabilities (Dote-Kwan, Chen, & Hughes, 2001; Hatton, 2001).
In many cases visual disabilities can now be prevented, but a great deal more could be done. For example, the incidence of visual disabilities can be greatly reduced by protecting against eye injuries (Prevent Blindness America, 2005a & b). In many cases, prevention is truly the application of common sense and reasonable safety measures. Each year thousands of children under the age of five have eye injuries (Prevent Blindness America, 2005a). These accidents occur at home, at school, or in the car, and many of them could be prevented. Putting sharp objects (even pencils) out of the reach of children, being certain that toys are safe, and getting help as soon as possible when injuries do happen can make all the difference. Early treatment can avoid a lifetime of visual problems.
For those visual disabilities that cannot be avoided, their impact can be lessened through early and consistent treatment. Unfortunately, not all U.S. children have early access to health care. In fact, poor children are between 1.2 and 1.8 times more likely to have visual disabilities (Sherman, 1994). Considering the long-term costs to society and to these individuals, the problem of access to health care must be addressed.
Overcoming Challenges: Technology
The telephone and the phonograph are examples of technological advances that were created for the general population but have special benefits for people with visual disabilities because they offer inexpensive access to both entertainment and information. Large-print books, computerized versions of popular novels, audio versions of books, and computers are other examples of items developed for the general population that have increased the access of people with visual disabilities to mainstream society. Everyone now has greater access to printed information through electronic books and laptop computers that enable the reader to increase the size of print or to switch from print to voice easily.
These exciting technological advances open up a new world for people with visual disabilities. Clearly, these advances facilitate their participation and give them independence in all aspects of modern society. However, three major barriers inhibit their access: cost, complexity, and information. With the average costs of assistive devices ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 and the vast number of options available, careful selection of the right equipment is important. However, as we noted earlier, when equipment is developed for the mass market (cell phones are a good example), people with disabilities also benefit because the devices are both accessible and affordable (Fruchterman, 2003). Assistive devices can be grouped into three categories:
- Visual input devices
- Audio input devices
- Tactile input devices
Visual Input Devices
Visual input devices are equipment or technologies that help people with visual loss access visual information in the environment. Many of these devices are used to enlarge print so that it is easier for a person with visual loss to see and read. For example, closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology allows video magnifiers to enlarge the print found in printed texts and books (American Association of Retired Persons [AARP], 2002; Lighthouse International, 2005). By means of a small television camera with a zoom lens and a sliding reading stand on which the printed materials are placed, greatly enlarged printed material (up to 60 times the original size) can be viewed on a television monitor. Another version, the Magni-Cam, has a TV camera embedded in something that looks like a computer mouse and can roll aver printed pages. Such equipment provides immediate access to all types of printed materials, such as magazines, textbooks, and photocopied handouts.
Other equipment can also' increase print size. Far example, overhead projectors, although they are not useful to most individuals with low vision, can be used to enlarge printed materials. Personal computers can produce large-print displays on the computers' screens, allowing persons with low vision to adjust the size and style of print to match their own visual efficiencies. Accompanying printers permit the user to select different sizes of print far hard-copy printout. These features enable teachers to prepare different versions of handouts—one version for students with visual disabilities and one for sighted classmates. Remember that most standard copy machines can also adjust print size.
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