We spend a lot of time on RYV talking about the effects that vision can have on the day-to-day lives of older people. Presbyopia, glaucoma, cataracts, AMD – all are extremely common, severe eye disorders, and all are much more likely to affect silver citizens than they are children.
Sometimes though, visual problems can have even greater impact on those young enough to still be developing physically and, as we’ll be discussing today, socially.
One of the best sources on this often-overlooked niche of visual health is a 2012 whitepaper published by France’s Vision Impact Institute. We’ll look through some of their findings and add in a couple observations of our own.
A Widespread Problem
One of the first facts that we have to bring up when discussing childhood visual health is how incredibly common eye problems are for younger people. Sources cited by the whitepaper estimate that 14 percent of North American children have uncorrected visual disorders.
Believe it or not, this high number actually puts the US and Canada well ahead of many countries. China and India in particular have enormous rates of untreated vision problems; the same study pins the percentage of children with these issues at 41 percent for India, and a whopping 49 percent for China.
Europe, on the other hand, tends to have incredibly low, single digit rates, excepting Russia, which can claim a 42 percent estimated rate.
A primary reason for this – and one we have discussed before – is that childhood vision tests tend to be non-comprehensive, and are often run through schools with a nurse or similar professional acting as point of care. They’re particularly apt to miss disorders that don’t necessarily affect visual acuity. Strabismus, or crossed eyes, and similar conditions won’t always impede a child’s ability to read a letter chart, and require specialized testing to catch.
The greatest danger of subpar testing is that it sets children up for a tough start to their academic careers, which can easily snowball into bigger problems. Poor grades in elementary school may not count for much, but the extreme difficulties that many children with low vision face only worsen as material becomes more advanced and reliant on previous learning.
Most of the studies covered in the Institute’s report concerned the intense difficulties that children with impaired vision face at school.
Poor vision can be a nightmare for students trying to make their way in a heavily reading-oriented school system. Nearsightedness can make it impossible for a student to fully focus on a blackboard. Strabismus in particular is notorious for turning book assignments into headache-inducing crawls for affected children.
These, and many other undiagnosed disorders, can severely damage a child’s odds of academic success. One study, courtesy of Brazil, found that children with sub-20/20 visual acuity were three times more likely to fail a grade than their peers, while a team of Austrian researchers saw that children with visual disorders spent 30 percent more time on classwork than those without, and were more prone to make errors.
As you might guess, academic struggles don’t make life any easier for growing children. Researchers have even worked to find a link between low vision and delinquency.
US researchers even found that 70 percent of first-time offenders had vision problems of some sort – though it’s worth noting that there’s plenty of controversy surrounding this particular topic.
Whether or not you believe that an undiagnosed need for glasses can give rise to criminal behavior, the rest of the evidence is unsurprisingly clear: kids with poor vision often struggle to make their way through school.
A good deal of the emotional and social difficulties detailed by the Institute’s whitepaper are tied into academic performance, but that’s not quite the whole story.
Another key metric of social success is (even if it’s a bit soulless) career success. Children with low vision tend to struggle in this category as well. One Singaporean and one US study concurred – the gap in earnings between children with myopia (Singapore) or amblyopia (US) was absolutely enormous, exacerbating the difficulties that low vision had already caused.
Also worth noting is how important vision is for early recognition of emotional cues. Facial expression is a key means of communicating mood or intent, and children with low vision may have difficulty recognizing fine detail crucial to establishing emotional context.
While there hasn’t been much research in this area involving children, at least one study has shown that adults with low vision can have difficulty in picking up on facial expression.
A 2008 study from the University of Lille in France showed that adults suffering from age-related macular degeneration were less likely than a control group to notice expression on a face. Interestingly enough, when they did notice an expression, they generally categorized it correctly.
Again, adults with AMD aren’t exactly analogous to children, but it’s not hard to imagine some of the same difficulties making delicate social interaction tricky for a growing child, especially given how reliant extremely young children with limited vocabularies are on non-verbal cues.
As anyone who grew up with low vision can testify, poor eyesight can make sports much more difficult than they might otherwise be.
You’ll find plenty of empirical sources discuss this. Traditional recreational activities aren’t designed with low vision in mind, and children with undiagnosed difficulties can quickly find themselves frustrated and several steps behind their peers.
With a diagnosis comes some more concrete steps. Betsy Zaborowski, an executive director at the national institute for the blind, emphasized the importance of recreation and sports for blind children, or those with low vision.
Zaborowski specifically recommends “Karate, judo, swimming, and wrestling” as options suited to children dealing with low vision. Whatever the case may be, the message is constant: children need activities and those with poor eyesight often have to search to find one that they can excel in. Finding it can be a struggle, but options exist and are well worth the trouble to join.