Low vision is the term used to describe a significant loss of vision, to the point where most interventions cannot return that vision or help the patient with necessary functioning.

Low vision can arise due to health problems or eye injuries. (Learn More)

To find the best low vision specialist, patients can look online, ask their doctor for a referral, or consult an organization that offers services to low vision and legally blind people. (Learn More)

An expert in low vision can help the patient use specially designed devices to improve their vision and restore some functionality to their everyday life. (Learn More)

confident female doctor working

What Is Low Vision?

Low vision describes the medical condition of visual impairment that is so severe, it cannot be adequately corrected with glasses, contact lenses, or even surgery. Low vision can refer to:

  • Blind spots and tunnel vision, where the field of view is restricted to 20 degrees or less. Both of these are examples of significant visual field loss.
  • Best corrected visual acuity (the best amount of vision that glasses or contact lenses can offer an eye) that is 20/200 or worse in the better eye. A measurement of best corrected visual acuity that is this weak would meet the criteria for legal blindness.

Low vision can be caused by a number of conditions or other problems.

  • Cataracts can lead to blurry or hazy vision.
  • Macular degeneration can partially cover central vision.
  • Diabetic retinopathy can distort vision and lead to blind spots.
  • Glaucoma can reduce peripheral vision, as does retinitis pigmentosa.
  • Low vision can also be genetically inherited or caused by injuries to the eye or head.

Low vision can occur in children and adults, causing anything from mental health problems to a decrease in the ability to carry out everyday activities.

 

How to Find the Best Low Vision Specialist Near You

If you have low vision or know someone who does, the first step is to receive a diagnosis from an eye care professional. This starts by getting a complete eye exam. If the doctor determines that the degree of your vision loss cannot be sufficiently addressed by eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery, they will refer you to a low vision specialist.

A low vision specialist is a licensed doctor of either optometry and ophthalmology (or even both), who is certified to prescribe treatments to patients who have a diagnosis of low vision. This specialist is trained in how to perform specialized low vision eye exams and in ways to improve quality of life for patients who have low vision. They offer advice and guidance on how patients can change their lifestyles to accommodate both the limitations of low vision and the changes that will result from treatment.

Low vision specialists are also able to teach patients to properly use devices and equipment that will help them overcome their vision disability.

An opthamologist is listening to the patient in an exam room.

Developing an Early Relationship

Retina Today suggests that it is preferable to refer a patient to a low vision specialist as soon as possible. This is because the special devices a specialist will prescribe will be “relatively less intense” when the visual disability is in its early stages. It might also be easier for a patient to adjust to the changes.

An early referral also gives more time for the patient and the specialist to bond. This is exceptionally important for patients who are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, or any other mental health problems because of the difficulties caused by the low vision. Addressing these problems might help to smooth the intervention and rehabilitation stages of the low vision treatment.

Finding the best low vision specialist should take into account the relationship that a patient and specialist will have. If you feel that sufficient rapport does not exist between you and a potential specialist (or that that rapport is unlikely to develop), it might be a good idea to keep searching.

 

What Does a Low Vision Specialist Do?

The specialist will first determine that your current glasses and/or contacts are up to date. Then, they’ll determine whether any conditions that might cause low vision, such as diabetes or glaucoma, are being properly treated.

The specialist can conduct tests to determine the full nature of the visual disability. You might even return to your original doctor for some simple tests to shed more light on your low vision.

The specialist will only move forward with treatment after they have a complete understanding of the current status of your eye health.

A specialist can prescribe the appropriate low vision aids for your type of visual disability. Examples include bioptic telescopes (to help people with low vision perform everyday tasks like driving), digital desktop magnifiers, and lighted handheld magnifiers. You can also get smartphone apps that help with magnification and converting text to speech.

When you meet your low vision specialist, they will typically review your medical and ocular history. If you were referred by your doctor or another eye doctor, information about your recent eye examinations might be forwarded to the specialist ahead of time.

The specialist will be able to connect you to organizations that offer large-print materials and special eyewear. A general practitioner might not know about these resources, even if the doctor is familiar with eye conditions that lead to low vision.

doctor talking to patient in front of laptop

Resources for Low Vision Specialists

To find the best low vision specialist near you, consult the American Academy of Optometry. The academy’s website allows you to do a location search for any members who are certified in low vision treatments.

Once you have found a low vision specialist, you will be financially responsible for the use of their services and the devices they recommend. Medicare does not cover the associated costs for most low vision aids, so you will likely have to pay for the services and supplies you receive. Make sure to confirm the expected out-of-pocket costs beforehand.

You might consult the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the Lighthouse Guild, and VisionServe Alliance. Not only will these organizations be able to point you in the direction of a low vision specialist, but they also have resources to help patients get low vision devices at a reduced cost or no cost at all, depending on financial need.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has a public service foundation known as EyeCare America, which offers a number of services to help people without insurance who need low vision treatment. People who meet the criteria for EyeCare America will receive full examinations and treatments for a full year, at no cost.

 

References

What Is Low Vision? (February 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Low Vision and Your Eyes. (May 2019). WebMD.

Low Vision Services: A Practical Guide for the Clinician. (Jan-Dec 2018). Therapeutic Advances in Ophthalmology.

What Is a Low Vision Specialist? (November 2019.) Verywell Health.

Collaborating With Low Vision Specialists. (September 2016). Retina Today.

A Small Device Helps Severely Nearsighted Drivers Hit The Road. (June 2014). NPR.

What Is the Link Between Blurry Vision and Diabetes? (December 2018). Medical News Today.

Low Vision Section. American Academy of Optometry.

Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions. American Foundation for the Blind.

EyeCare America. American Academy of Ophthalmology.