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Persons with Learning Disabilities More Likely to Develop Eyesight Problems

  • Published: 2009-07-08 (Revised/Updated 2010-04-15) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss
  • Synopsis: The U.K. National Health System has stated that thirty percent of persons with a learning disability have a diagnosed visual impairment as well.

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People with learning disabilities in their forties are being brought in with cataracts, leaving optometrists to wonder whether it is congenital, or if it developed in their forties.

The National Health System (NHS) in the United Kingdom has stated that thirty-percent of persons with a learning disability have a diagnosed visual impairment as well.

What is frightening is that the NHS has also said that fifty-percent of persons with learning disabilities have an undiagnosed visual impairment, and have the potential to lose their vision unnecessarily. The Bridge to Vision program has local optometrists and NHS staff members, as well as support workers offering eye checkups to hundreds of people with learning disabilities.

Optometrist Peter Carson says there are many reasons why eye problems are not being caught, to include wrong assumptions and discrimination. It might also be that it can be difficult to test the person's vision, especially if the person's learning disability is severe. Behaviors such as being withdrawn or uncommunicative, or rocking back and forth, making odd noises, or lashing out at others, are ones that are sometimes seen as being associated with a person's disability instead of being associated with a vision problem. Many people with disabilities are not having regular eye examinations because the people taking care of them assume it would not benefit them. Younger people with disabilities and visual impairment might get their vision issues caught, but problems arise as they grow older.

People with learning disabilities in their forties are being brought in with cataracts, leaving optometrists to wonder whether it is congenital, or if it developed in their forties. The person often doesn't have an eye care history. There are many conditions that leave a person more prone to vision problems. These conditions include disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, Usher's syndrome, Downs syndrome, Fragile X, and others.

At times it is difficult to test the vision of persons with learning disabilities. Anxiety and behavioral problems can make the testing process harder. Going into a dark room and allowing someone you do not know to shine a bright light into your eyes can cause anxiety. One health care worker is quoted as saying, 'Some people cling to door-posts to avoid coming in.' Many health care workers are receiving training to work with persons who have learning disabilities so that they can provide care; they are referred to as, 'PAW's,' workers.

A PAW's worker usually accompanies the person to their appointment with sweets or toys to comfort them, making the experience easier. Planning is done in advance; for example, they may allow the person to examine the chair and the eye exam instruments first. The person may prefer either a female or male optometrist. Another health care worker stated, 'I think people make too many assumptions. If people showed a bit more patience, disabled people would have a better chance of enjoying their life.'

I agree; going to the doctor or eye doctor can be a frightening experience for some people. Having strange instruments that you do not understand in close proximity to you can be equally scary. I personally do not have a learning disability that I am aware of, yet when I went through the surgery on my knees this last December, there were plenty of things that intimidated me, not the least of which was a simple paper form. The medical field as a whole needs to step down from their height of professionalism just a tad, and remember that the people they are there to treat are indeed people.

Those who take care of persons with disabilities simply must be aware of the fact that behavior is a multi-faceted thing. Behavior can be a response to any event in life, it is not always, 'just a part of the person's disability.' People are all individuals, making the mistake of grouping behaviors by a disability label can result in something like this article describes. What follows are some facts mentioned in the article linked below:

There are about 1.5m people with learning disabilities in the UK.
Around 80% of people with learning disability have some form of visual impairment.

People with learning disability are up to 200 times more likely to have a sight problem.

Sight loss in people with learning disability usually remains undetected.
As many as 50% of people with learning disability cannot recognize the alphabet - hampering traditional eye tests.

RNIB believes visual impairment, not diminished capabilities, is responsible for holding back many with learning disabilities.


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