Change that leads to better lives

How to be more eye care aware

In National Eye Health Week, New NDTi board member, Scott Watkin, talks about his work with the charity SeeAbility - raising awareness of the risks of sight problems amongst people with learning disabilities, and how we can all be more eye care aware.

Scott Blog

My eye care journey started nearly 30 years ago. I have memories of going to the hospital, with its busy waiting room, to have an eye test. This only happened because a nurse at my special school had spotted a problem with my eyes.

It turned out I have an eye condition called keratoconus. This is one of the eye conditions that people with learning disabilities are at more risk of having and can make vision blurry and distorted, getting worse over time.

My sight isn’t great. But if it hadn’t been treated, I would be a lot less independent now. Access to eye care for people with learning disabilities can be a lottery and I was one of the lucky ones.

Not many people know that you have a really high risk of sight problems when you have a learning disability. 1 in 10 adults will be blind or partially sighted and 6 in 10 will need glasses 1. The risk of poor vision increases the more severe your learning disability is. This can make it more difficult for those who support people with learning disabilities, such as carers, parents and teachers, to spot there’s a problem with a person’s vision.

National Eye Health Week is a great chance to talk about eye care and here at SeeAbility, we have loads of free resources especially for people with learning disabilities about looking after your eyes, getting glasses, and also surgery and treatment. Did you know that 50% of sight loss in the UK is avoidable, and much of this is just down to people not having the glasses they need?

People can also think a sight test is just about finding out if you need glasses but it’s also an important overall health check. An optician can tell a lot about your general health, including signs of high blood pressure, or diabetes. Because eye problems can come on gradually, and aren’t necessarily painful, having regular sight tests are important.

There are people like Sally, who lost her sight in her 30s to glaucoma. She couldn’t tell anyone she was gradually going blind. People thought her rubbing her eyes was all down to hayfever until it was diagnosed too late. Maureen, Sally’s mum, now campaigns for greater awareness and better eye care services nationally.

People assume that people with learning disabilities won’t cope or won’t see the benefit of eye care because they ‘can’t read’ or ‘can’t drive’. My work for SeeAbility involves changing attitudes, travelling around the country training eye care professionals and offering peer support to people with learning disabilities on what to expect at a sight test.

I hear stories all the time of people who could hardly see because they just didn’t have the glasses they needed. A support worker recently told us that they were asked if the person with a learning disability being assessed for cataract surgery really needed their eyes! We all need our eyes! Just because someone has a learning disability doesn’t mean their sight isn’t as important as anyone else’s.

Many people with learning disabilities need targeting with better access to longer, adjusted appointments for health checks. In England, the NHS will do this for GP check-ups and dental care, and we’re campaigning at SeeAbility to improve things in access to community eye care for children and adults. For example we want learning disabilities to be added to the list of factors that allow people to legally qualify for free NHS sight tests. This would remove some of the worry about whether a person has to pay for their sight test.

I often think about what would have happened if my eye condition hadn’t been spotted early on. I would have probably thought what I was seeing was normal, and that’s just how it was. I would have struggled to get around independently, and I wonder if that would have limited my confidence or opportunities to have a career and a family.

Poor vision might not be life threatening, but it is life changing. Everyone deserves that equal right to sight!

Find out More...

Follow @scottwatkin on Twitter.

SeeAbility is supporting National Eye Health Week: Seeability supports National Eye Health Week

SeeAbility’s new resource ‘How to be eye care aware’ is available, along with SeeAbility’s easy read resources for people with learning disabilities at: https://www.seeability.org/Pages/Category/look-after-your-eyes. This also has a function to look for optometrists in your local area experienced at supporting people with learning disabilities.

1.Emerson and Robertson (2011). The Estimated Prevalence of Visual Impairment among of People with Learning Disabilities in the UK. Improving Health and Lives.

Subscribe to NDTi News

Thank you for taking the time to subscribe.