Total blindness is the inability to tell light from dark, or the total inability to see. Visual impairment or low vision is a severe reduction in vision that cannot be corrected with standard glasses or contact lenses and reduces a person’s ability to function at certain or all tasks. Legal blindness (which is actually a severe visual impairment) refers to a best-corrected central vision of 20/200 or worse in the better eye or a visual acuity of better than 20/200 but with a visual field no greater than 20° (e.g., side vision that is so reduced that it appears as if the person is looking through a tunnel).
Eye care professionals measure vision in many ways. Clarity (sharpness) of vision indicates how well a person’s central visual status is. The diopter is the unit of measure for refractive errors such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism and indicates the strength of corrective lenses needed. People do not just see straight ahead; the entire area of vision is called the visual field. Some people have good vision (e.g., see clearly) but have areas of reduced or no vision (blind spots) in parts of their visual field. Others have good vision in the center but poor vision around the edges (peripheral visual field). People with very poor vision may be able only to count fingers at a given distance from their eyes. This distance becomes the measure of their ability to see.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines impaired vision in five categories:
- Low vision 1 is a best corrected visual acuity of 20/70.
- Low vision 2 starts at 20/200.
- Blindness 3 is below 20/400.
- Blindness 4 is worse than 5/300.
- lindness 5 is no light perception at all.
- A visual field between 5° and 10° (compared with a normal visual field of about 120°) goes into category 3; less than 5° into category 4, even if the tiny spot of central vision is perfect.
Color blindness is the reduced ability to perceive certain colors, usually red and green. It is a hereditary defect and affects very few tasks. Contrast sensitivity describes the ability to distinguish one object from another. A person with reduced contrast sensitivity may have problems seeing things in the fog because of the decrease in contrast between the object and the fog.
According to the WHO there are over forty million people worldwide whose vision is category 3 or worse, 80% of whom live in developing countries. Half of the blind population in the United States is over 65 years of age.