What is a visual impairment?

Guest Author
January 11, 2023
What is a visual impairment?

What does it mean if someone has a visual impairment? What's the difference between visual impairment to legally blind? In today's blog post our guest author Chad answers these questions and explains to us, what visual impairment is.

When I was first diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, I remember being told I was legally blind. I did not know really understand all the different terms like visually impaired, legally blind, and blind being used to describe my diagnosis and prognosis. In my youthful ignorance, I believed that you were either blind or you could see. I did not know there were levels and degrees of blindness. Most of us, when we hear the word blind, think of a total loss of vision.  So, what does it mean when someone says I have a visual impairment? Well according to doctors a visual impairment means that a person’s vision cannot be corrected to a normal level. Apologies for those offended using normal, however, in the context of this blog post that is the technical definition of visual impairment.  

The term visual impairment, or visually impaired can be just as hard to understand because of the wide range of eye conditions and visual acuity this term encompasses. For instance, did you know that you can be considered low vision with a visual acuity of 20/70? That does not seem like such a crazy margin. Nevertheless, the reality is that vision loss lies on a broad spectrum. Vision loss will never be the same for two people even if they have the same eye condition. Take me and my sister for instance. We both have Retinitis Pigmentosa, however, she has more functioning vision than I do. I tend to be way more cautious and nervous navigating, whereas she is full speed ahead and just plows into things with no fear. To me, this is what makes the term visually impaired a bit confusing because it is hard to know to what degree a person’s impairment is. When describing my circumstance, I personally believe the term visually impaired is easier to digest than legally blind. From my own personal encounters, I feel this term signifies to someone there is some type of impairment, but that there is possibly some functioning vision still intact.  

When you use the word blind, I think people mistakenly conclude you have absolutely no vision whatsoever. When in reality many more people are legally blind than completely blind. Legally blind refers to someone who has central visual acuity that allows them to see directly straight ahead of them. Legally blind also for some people can be corrected and actually produce very normal vision. The term visually impaired just seems to fit me better since I do view it as an impairment, and it does hinder me in many ways and unfortunately cannot be cured or corrected. Whenever I tell someone that I am visually impaired and that I have low vision it makes it easier for me to start a conversation with someone about my vision loss. Perhaps, the current terminology used throughout the visually impaired community is not as precisely defined as we would like to believe.However, whenever I tell someone that I am visually impaired, I try to further explain to them exactly what I can see to help make it easier to understand.  I use the example of looking through a drinking straw or coffee straw and then just for fun, try throwing a cataract in there to help make that small field of vision blurry and foggy. At least for me, I find this to be an easy way to relate to people who have zero problems with their vision.  

I think it is important to stress that not every blind or visually impaired person struggles to see their environments and navigate them safely. I cannot see nearly anything nowadays, however, I can still walk freely on my own through routes and buildings that I am familiar with. I do not believe there is an easy way to answer the question of what it means to be visually impaired, subsequently, Ido not believe all questions have a concrete answer. The reality is that visual impairments lie upon an extremely vast spectrum. I think what matters is just trying to understand and be compassionate to how an individual prefers to identify themselves. If someone chooses visually impaired or legally blind, then that is their personal choice, and no one should be forced to conform to their visual identity.  

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