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What is low vision?

Low vision is when – even with glasses or contact lenses – you are unable to see in sufficient detail to enable you to easily perform daily activities. If you have severe low vision, you may be eligible to be certified as having visual impairment (partially sighted) or severe visual impairment (blind).

A common myth is that people who are legally ‘blind’ cannot see anything, but being visually impaired does not necessarily mean that you have no sight. Even people who are certified as being severely visually impaired/blind often have useful vision, and there are many helpful gadgets to help them do most daily tasks.

Who is affected by low vision?

Although most people with low vision are over 60, anyone who has a sight-threatening condition may develop low vision. The most common causes of visual impairment in the UK are:

Conditions that may affect younger people include:

  • congenital macular degeneration
  • diabetic retinopathy
  • some inherited eye diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa.

What are the symptoms of low vision?

The symptoms of low vision depend on which eye condition causes it. The most common eye condition that leads to sight loss is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which usually affects people over the age of 60. This affects your central vision, meaning you have difficulty reading or recognising people’s faces.

There are some other conditions which have a similar affect on your vision that affect younger people, but they are much less common than AMD. Glaucoma does not cause symptoms in the early stages, but when advanced it causes tunnel vision, which leads to difficulty seeing things around you. Cataract?causes things to appear misty. Diabetic retinopathy does not cause any symptoms in the early stages, but may cause shapes floating in your vision or blurred or patchy vision. If a blood vessel bursts in your eye it may cause sudden vision loss.

How do you treat low vision?

The aim of treatment for the sight-threatening conditions, is to reduce their impact on your sight, to preserve your sight for as long as possible.

Tips for living with low vision

If you have low vision, there are many things that you can do to make life easier. These range from high tech gadgets such as talking microwaves and apps on phones to help you read, to low tech equipment such as ‘bump-ons’ to put on dials (such as your oven) and level indicators to help you know when a cup is full of liquid.

Simple things like having good lighting and contrast at home make things easier to see. For example:

  • If you are pouring a cup of tea or coffee into a white mug, pour the tea or coffee into the mug first, and then the milk.
  • You may find it easier to have dark plates to eat your food off, particularly if the food you are eating is lighter in colour, such as rice or pasta.
  • Having a dark toilet seat on a white toilet can help you see where the toilet is and whether the seat is up or down.

Lighting is very important, particularly as you get older, and it is the position of the light as well as its brightness that is important. The closer the light is to you, the more effective it will be, so use a standard or angle-poise lamp to help you see things, rather than just a ceiling lamp.

Low vision aids

If you need to magnify things there are several options available. ‘Low vision aids’ are available to borrow, free of charge from your local low vision service. These range from simple magnifying glasses, to more complex telescopes to magnify things that are far away. If you would like to try these, ask your optometrist for details of how to get into contact with your local low vision service. In some areas, they will come to your home to give you advice tailored to your circumstances.

Smartphones and tablets can also be used to magnify things electronically?or read text out to you. You can also subscribe to talking book or newspaper services or use a digital voice-activated assistant.

Low vision advice, information and support

Royal National Institute of Blind People

Macular Society

International Glaucoma Association

Guide Dogs


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