General Health Article:

World of information – and feeling – lost when vision goes

By Kate Fewel, MSW, LCSW

If someone you know has vision loss, chances are the world looks distorted, blurry or disjointed to them.

As a social worker for Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted (CSBPS), I have the privilege of visiting people who are experiencing low vision. In my effort and curiosity to understand their challenges, I usually ask two questions:

“How does your vision loss affect you?” and “What do you wish others understood about your limited eyesight?”

In response to the first question, most people express dismay about not being able to read or drive. An especially poignant reply is the inability to see faces.

Phyllis Roberts, a client in Mr. Vernon, recently helped me understand the feelings that come with not being able to see another’s face (or even one’s own face in a mirror). An accomplished artist and musician, Phyllis decided to depict how she sees the world through watercolor. In a Picasso-like style, amidst a cascade of pastels, she illustrates a half face, with surrounding letters and musical notes fading in sharpness and contrast.

From infancy, we focus on faces, and her painting is a reminder of that. Studies have shown that an infant can pick out his or her mother’s face among many choices. Throughout life, most of our communication takes place on the nonverbal level with facial expressions playing a vital role in deciphering a range of feelings.

Without the visual cues necessary for “reading” other’s faces, persons with low vision often describe confusion and frustration when unable to have “eye contact”. They might see only a half-face or a face in which the eyes, nose and mouth are uneven. Or they might see a body with no head at all.

A world of information and feeling is lost when one is unable to see the faces of loved ones. “If only I could see the faces of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” many clients tell me.

Most people I talk to have come up with ways to compensate for their inability to see faces clearly.

Some will ask their loved ones and friends to sit very near, as oftentimes a face will come into better focus at close proximity.

Others become adept at using peripheral vision. Often, clients will “look off to one side” in order to see someone’s face.

The visually impaired become practiced at inquiring about another’s feelings: “It sounds as if you might be (angry, bored, happy, worried, etc.) Tone of voice becomes a helpful cue to the meaning of conversations.

Many say that until they come to know another person by the sound of his or her voice, it’s very helpful for that person to introduce him/herself by name when beginning a conversation or when entering or leaving a room.

When in a group, it’s often difficult for visually impaired people to know when it’s their turn to talk. It’s therefore helpful to address someone with low vision by name when you’re asking him or her to contribute.

Tools can also help. Magnified mirrors make it easier to see one’s own face, and a CCTV or scanner can help the visually impaired see photographs and printed materials.

Family and friends are valuable assets as their loved one with vision loss learns ways to adjust and adapt to challenges. While your faces may not be seen clearly, your patience and caring attitude sets the tone for understanding.

For more information on vision loss, go to visit the CSBPS Web site at www.csbps.com.