Visual Impairments

What are visual impairments?

Mother and daughter hug

The term visual impairments means much more than just blindness, but also includes:

  • Partially-sighted: A visual problem resulting in a need for special education.
  • Low vision: Unable to read at a normal viewing distance, even with eyeglasses or contact lenses.
  • Legally blind: Less than 20/200 vision in the better eye or a very small field of vision (less than 20 degrees).
  • Totally blind: Cannot see at all.

About 12 of every 1,000 children under 18 have a visual impairment. Severe visual impairments (legally or totally blind) occur at a lower rate (about 6% per 1,000). For more information, click on this link from the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities: NICHY Fact Sheet.

(National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities)

How can I tell if my child has a visual impairment?

Sometimes it is easy to tell that a baby is blind. The eyes don’t follow you across a room, or you hold a toy in front of the child and he or she doesn’t react until it makes a noise. But sometimes it is hard for a parent to tell if a child has a vision problem that is less severe than total blindness. Other conditions make it seem that your baby can’t see. Are your child’s vision skills developing normally? How would you know? Just as physical and mental skills develop, so do visual skills. For help, click on this link Parents’ Guide to Children’s Visual Development for a visual development checklist broken down by a baby or child’s age.

What effect do visual impairments have on my child?

The effect of visual problems on your child’s development depends on the severity of the loss, the cause of the problem and any other problems (multiple handicaps).

A baby born blind or severely visually-impaired experiences the world differently from children who can see. Child development experts tell us that nearly all – about 85% – of early learning is related to seeing. The child who cannot see is at great risk for developmental delays (falling behind). But early intervention can help a great deal. Click Florida’s Children and Families Program to learn more about early intervention and other services.

What can I do to help my child?

You have made an important first step by reading about visual impairments. Another step is to talk with other parents of children with vision loss. They have gone through what you are going through and perhaps can help.

You also can get help and connect with other parents by contacting local support groups. To locate support groups in your area please contact 2-1-1 and as for Help Me Grow. Research tells us that the earlier we begin to help children, the better the results for the child and family.



What everyday things can I do to help my child?

Kid laughing

Combine what you do in an ordinary day with things to help your child’s development. Bath time, mealtime, shopping, traveling in the car and family outings are great times to do this. Some suggestions:

  • Carry your baby in a front pack while doing chores around the house. Talk about what you are doing. For example, “Mommy is putting the laundry in the machine now. You hear the water going in and smell the soap, Sweetie?”
  • If your child has some vision, place toys and other things on a light-colored background to make them stand out. For example, place a red ball on a white floor. Do this at mealtime, too. Try putting food in plates with contrasting colors, e.g., mashed potatoes on a dark blue paper plate.
  • Make toys using senses other than sight. You can use everyday objects. Put beans in a well-sealed potato chip can for sound, different types of cloths (terrycloth, satin, lace, velvet) for tactile (feel) play, and spices and perfumes for play with smells.
  • Take a walk around the neighborhood and talk about the everyday noises you hear such as dogs barking or cars and trucks driving by. Encourage your child to touch trees, smell flowers or feel a gentle rain on his or her face.

What treatment and aids are there for my child with a visual impairment?

Many treatments and devices can help your child with vision loss. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that children with visual impairments receive free and appropriate early intervention programs and special education programs from birth to age 21.

Examples of aids for children with visual impairments include:

  • Magnifier: A glass lens to make things appear to be bigger. They can be very useful to people with low vision. For more information on the many types of magnifiers, click on this link:
  • Service Dogs: Seeing-eye dogs, canine companions, guide, facility or service dogs refer to the wonderful partnership between dogs and people with disabilities. Service dogs help children and adults with a variety of disabilities, including hearing loss or deafness and physical disabilities. Children as young as 5 can apply to have a guide dog through Canine Companions for Independence.
  • Assistive Devices: Technology has improved greatly in recent years. Many more devices are available to help people with vision loss. For example, there are talking calculators and household appliances and Braille-based global positioning devices (telling your child out-loud directions and how to get places). Don’t worry if your child can’t type or push buttons because there are other ways to make the technology work. You also can check with an assistive technology specialist for advice on what technology will best help your child.

What causes visual impairments in children?

Vision problems can develop before a baby is born. Sometimes parts of the eyes don’t form the way they should. Or your baby’s eyes might be fine, but the brain has trouble processing the information sent.

Blindness can be genetic or inherited, meaning this problem is passed from parents to child.

  • Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) covers a large group of inherited visual problems that cause problems in the retina part of the eye. Peripheral (or side) vision gradually decreases, and eventually is lost. Central vision is usually all right until later.
  • Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis is another condition from birth that causes visual loss. Click on this link for more information:
  • For information on a genetic condition called Usher Syndrome, click on this link: Children with Usher Syndrome are often deaf and blind.

What does this mean about my child’s intelligence and learning?

Having vision loss or blindness does not mean that your child cannot learn. But how much and how fast they learn may be different. Your child will need support and extra time to learn.

Vision and eyesight are not the same thing. Vision is more than just seeing objects clearly, but also means moving our eyes together, focusing, depth perception and how we understand what we see. Think of having a car, but not knowing how to use it. To make the car go, you need to figure out how to use all the levers, knobs and pedals. Vision is similar. You may have two working eyes, but any problem along the way between the eyes and the brain will affect the vision. Learning how to put together and interpret the information coming in takes skill and practice.

Many children with visual impairments have other problems. If your child has other disabilities, he or she should be evaluated (tested) by a qualified psychologist who can tell you more about your child’s ability to learn.

Sometimes children with vision loss and another disability have difficulties with behavior and attention. An evaluation by a psychologist can help. Click on the link below to find a psychologist for an evaluation.

Children with serious vision loss are entitled to ongoing evaluations through the Early Steps program (birth to 3 years of age) and/or in special-education programs within the public school system that will check your child’s ability to learn and reason. Some parents also seek private evaluations.

Who are some professionals my child may need to see?

Your child may need to see many different health care specialists. For example:

  • Pediatrician: A doctor who specializes in treating children. The word “pediatric” in front of a professional’s title means he or she works with children.
  • Pediatric ophthalmologist: A medical doctor (M.D.) who specializes in treating children with eye disease and vision disorders, prescribing contact lenses or glasses to correct vision. Ophthalmologists are trained to do surgery.
  • Pediatric optometrist: A doctor who has spent four years beyond an undergraduate program studying the anatomy and function of the eyes. This doctor treats eye diseases and vision disorders and prescribes contact lenses or glasses to correct vision. But he or she does not do surgery. Optometrists are more apt to use lenses, prisms and vision therapy to enhance and improve visual function.
  • Social worker and counselor: A professional who provides counseling and emotional support for the child and family, and may help coordinate services, too.
  • Care coordinator: An individual responsible for organizing the details across agency lines and serving as your contact to help you and your family get services and assistance.
  • Early childhood special educator/special-education teacher: A teacher trained to work with your child, focusing attention on your child’s development and working with you to learn the techniques to benefit your child.
  • Assistive technology specialist: A specialist who provides assistive technology solutions (tools) to help with people with disabilities to accomplish tasks of daily living, including eating, speaking, getting around, bathing, working and playing. An assistive technology specialist knows many tools to help your child. Some devices are covered under Medicaid.

What are some websites where I can learn to help my child?

  • The Blindness Resource Center: This site also has much to offer to parents of visually impaired children or children with both visual and hearing impairments. Includes information on books, videos, schools, conditions and assistive technology.

Books and videos for children

  • Children With Visual Impairments: A Parents’ Guide (The Special-Needs Collection) by M. Cay, Ph.D. Holbrook, Editor.
  • Helping Children Who Are Blind (Early Assistance Series for Children With Disabilities) by Sandy Niemann, Namita Jacob and Heidi Broner.
  • Living and Learning With Blind Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers of Visually Impaired Children by Felicity Harrison and Mary Crow

Family Guide To Assistive Technology (online publication) by Katharin A. Kelker, Roger Holt, and John Sullivan (2000). This guide helps parents learn more about how assistive technology can help a child. Parents can better meet their child’s needs if they are involved in selecting assistive technology.