What is sight loss?
At its simplest, sight (or vision) loss is anything that affects a person’s ability to see clearly. It includes near and far vision and central and peripheral vision and cannot be corrected by glasses or lenses.
How many people are affected by sight loss?
A report by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) estimated that 1.1 billion people globally live with vision loss.
- 43 million people are blind (approximately 0.5 per cent of the global population)
- 295 million people have moderate to severe sight loss (3.7 per cent).
It also predicts that by 2050, the number of blind people globally will increase to 61 million, and the number of people with moderate to severe sight loss will increase to 474 million.
The RNIB estimates that 250 people start to lose their sight every day in the UK. This is the equivalent of one person every six minutes.
What can cause sight loss?
There are many different causes of sight loss.
This is when you are born with some degree of sight loss or an underlying condition that will go onto cause sight loss. It is more common in people who were born prematurely, and for those exposed to certain infections before they were born. For others, there may be a hereditary link.
Anyone can acquire sight loss at any stage in their life. This may be through normal aging, trauma, or disease.
Types of sight loss
Like most conditions, the degree of sight loss can vary from person to person. It can be:
- partial – for example, reduced central or peripheral vision, blurry or patchy vision
- full – the person has no vision
- mixed – for example, glaucoma and previous traumatic injury
- affecting one or both eyes.
Our glossary has more detailed information on the types of sight loss.
By 2050, it is predicted that more than 60 million people globally will be completely blind, and 474 million people will have moderate to severe sight loss.
Possible effects of sight loss
Sight loss can affect more than just a person’s vision. It can also be accompanied with:
- fatigue from the extra effort required
- fear – for example, about losing a job, independence, or vulnerability
- mental health impacts – see ‘Specific guidance 2: The individual’s journey’ for more information
Experiences of people with sight loss
- “It’s like being in a fog sitting in a car moving at pace whilst raining – it’s incredibly blurred.”
- “It’s not blurred, more like smearing dirt on glass which means that you can see bits past/through it.”
- “Patchy…. Can see coloured dots – worse in sunny days or when tired. It is like if you press your eyes and then release you see coloured dots.”
- “Can see light and shade – only in natural light.”
- “Pain in eyes and red eyes… black floaters quite a bit.”
- “It’s like being in a steam room with loads of steam where you can’t see much in front of you. It fluctuates.”
Myths and assumptions
We asked our panel of people with sight loss what myths and assumptions are common about sight loss – and what the truth is.
How to remove and reduce potential barriers
Living with sight loss in a predominantly sighted world can be challenging. It can affect all aspects of everyday life such as work, communicating with other people, hobbies, travel, accessing information, cooking, childcare and education. When something prevents a person with sight loss from doing something that a sighted person could do – for example, when a website is not screen reader accessible – we call that a ‘barrier’.
There are many ways that people with sight loss can overcome these barriers and retain their independence. These are often referred to as ‘support’.
What do we mean by ‘support?
We all have support systems and teams even if we do not call them that. Support comes in various formats and it is anything that can enable a person to reach their goals or a need.
When we talk about support in disability, it is often assumed that it is solely for the person with the disability or health condition. This should not be the case: support works best when it is available to everyone.
Types of support can include:
- training for healthcare professionals, employers, colleagues and businesses to increase understanding so they can reduce and remove barriers
- financial support- finding out what is available to help with any extra costs
- counselling – to help process and adjust to their new diagnosis and life experiences
- information on a person’s specific condition
- practical measures to enable people with sight loss to retain their independence such as learning about and using assistive technology or assistance dogs.
There is more detailed information on support in each of the specific guidance sections, including an interview on assistive technology.
“Just because someone has said no to support once, it doesn’t mean that the support will never be needed or that they won’t appreciate the offer at another period in time.”
– Steering group participant
Who can provide support?
There are many organisations and groups that can provide support and training courses, including:
- specialist organisations such as RNIB, NIBC, Macular Society, Sight Scotland
- Access to Work
- peer support groups
- Eye Clinic Liaison Officers (ECLO)
- NHS teams – ophthalmology teams
- optometrists and opticians
- local council
- Disability Employment Advisors (Job Centre Plus).
See ‘Further support’ below for more information about where you can go for support.
Seeing the whole person
No one is defined by one aspect of their identity. Looking at how individual aspects of a person’s life are affected by the others – for example, how a person’s experience of disability can be affected by their age – is sometimes called ‘intersectionality.’ But what role does it play in sight loss? Below are a few key examples of how different factors can affect a person with sight loss.
Those who have sight loss from a young age or were born with sight loss will encounter different barriers and challenges from those who develop sight loss when they are older. For example, sight loss may impact their experience of independence or education.
As we age, we are more likely to develop sight loss. Our hearing and mobility may also be reduced, bringing additional barriers.
Sometimes our age can also affect how others see and treat us. Their expectations of how to cope can also influence how we see ourselves. An older person’s expectations of how they will be treated may be different from those of a young person with sight loss.
Educational ability and achievements
Some people with sight loss may not have had the same educational support and opportunities as their sighted peers. This means that their natural intelligence may not be accurately reflected in their academic records. This can significantly impact their career prospects and how other people treat them.
Other health conditions or disabilities
Society unwittingly places many barriers in the paths of people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. This can mean that disabled people have to problem-solve more and work harder than their non-disabled peers. This takes mental and physical energy.
If you have sight loss and another disability or health condition, the effort required increases. For example, suppose you also are neurodivergent and have a poor short-term working memory and slow processing speed. In that case, you are less likely to remember what is said to you. If the information is only presented to you in a format that you cannot access due to your sight loss, your overall health and well-being are likely to be reduced.
A person’s sight loss may be ‘diagnostically overshadowed’ – meaning that medical professionals may not realise they have sight loss because of another condition the person has. For example, symptoms of sight loss can be overlooked or wrongly attributed to aspects of a learning disability or dementia.
How we treat people with disabilities is often influenced by beliefs and culture. A common link is fear. This can be through:
- fear of difference or fear of the unknown, as the difference is not spoken about
- fear of looking ignorant and being ridiculed or humiliated on social media
- fear of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong terminology and upsetting someone
- fear of facing legal action because of saying or doing the wrong thing.
What does this mean?
The examples of common characteristics given above each demonstrate how a person’s experience of sight loss can be different depending on how other factors affect them. This is backed up by the research data below.
Data collected for the 2020 International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) report showed that:
- more women experience sight loss than men
- the risk of developing sight loss increases with age
- types and prevalence of sight loss are higher in some geographical areas and ethnic groups.
We all have our own unique combinations of characteristics and they can significantly impact our risk factors, how we are treated and our life chances. For example, using the above data, if you are an older woman you are much more likely to have sight loss than a young boy. Adding in culture, geographical location, ethnicity, education, other disabilities and health conditions can change each person’s experiences again. In short, we are all unique and so need to be seen as a whole person.
There are different laws on disability around the world. However, they all exist to try to protect the rights of disabled people.
What do disability laws say about sight loss?
The Equality Act 2010 protects people with sight loss in England, Wales and Scotland from discrimination. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provides protection for people with sight loss in Northern Ireland. Many other countries have similar legislation.
However, a person does not need to hold a ‘Certificate of Vision Impairment’ (CVI) to be covered under the Act. If they experience substantial barriers in their day-to-day life because of their sight loss, they are likely to be protected by the legislation in the UK. See our resource ‘The legal definition of disability’ for more information.
Other legislation that may be applicable:
- Health and safety legislation
- Driving authorities such as the DVLA in the UK
- Care Act 2014.
Several organisations can provide detailed information and support to individuals with sight loss and their friends and families. The organisations listed below are national and aim to reach a wider audience. They may be able to signpost you to more local, condition- and audience-specific organisations.
Most of these organisations also have detailed information for employers, businesses, and service providers, which can be very useful.
- Visionary – A national umbrella organisation that provides details of local sight loss charities.
- RNIB – The Royal National Institute of Blind people, a UK charity offering help and support for people with sight loss.
- RNIB Sightline – RNIB’s directory of information about local services for people with sight loss in the UK.
- NCBI – The National Council for the Blind of Ireland, a charity that provides support to people with sight loss in the Republic of Ireland.
- SeeAbility – A national charity that supports people who have learning disabilities or autism and also sight loss. They have Easy Read documents about sight loss, designed for people with learning disabilities.
- Access to Work – A UK Government initiative that aims to support people with disabilities get jobs and stay in work.
Disclaimer: The Sight Loss Toolkit has been commissioned and funded by Roche Products Ltd.
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