Health

A vision-impaired world through different lenses

  • Added insight: Owain Johnston-Barnes wears goggles to simulate what the world looks like to a visually impaired person (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
  • World Sight Day with Owain Johnston-Barnes (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
  • World Sight Day with Owain Johnston-Barnes (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A stroll through Hamilton can be an enjoyable experience — but not when you can barely see across the road.

It’s an experience I “enjoyed” yesterday before today’s World Sight Day — with the assistance of the Bermuda Society for the Blind.

To highlight the impact of sight loss, I agreed to wear a series of goggles designed to show the effects of various types of vision problems.

The big green goggles might look like a prop from Jurassic Park, but the effect was immediately noticeable.

The first pair, which simulated severe cataracts, blanketed Victoria Park in a fog.

I could see, but reading was a challenge and objects in the distance were harder to make out.

Another pair simulated glaucoma, which reduces the peripheral vision and leaves a small area of sight in the centre.

With the goggles on, I could clearly read and use my phone, but almost everything outside that narrow window of sight was gone.

Vince Godber a vision rehabilitation therapist, said: “The problem we find is that if you can look at your phone in front of people but can’t get across the street, they think you’re faking it.”

Next on the list were goggles that simulated diabetic retinopathy, which added areas of discolouration to the distortion of my sight.

Mr Godber said the condition was like using a blowtorch on the retina.

He said: “People get a lot of bleeding in the eyes, so you get a change in colour. It will only get worse over time.”

Another set of goggles highlighted hemianopsia — a condition which can be sparked by a stroke and affects one eye only.

Mr Godber explained: “The eyes are the only part of the nervous system that are on the outside of the body, but the optic nerves come through and cross over.

“If you have a stroke on the right, you could lose vision on the left side, and what happens is that side just doesn’t exist. It’s as if it isn’t there. It’s a weird experience.”

He said that men were often reluctant to seek treatment or use a mobility aid that would single them out as having eyesight problems.

Mr Godber added: “If you bump into somebody, it’s often seen as an act of aggression. People are often accused of being drunk or aggressive and it’s simply that they haven’t seen the other person.

“A lot of young soldiers I have worked with have had to walk into a pub and get into a fight before they come back and ask about a cane.”

Another pair featured a blend of macular degeneration, which almost entirely blocked vision in the centre of my eyesight, and glaucoma.

Mr Godber explained: “It’s like a pinhead in your retina, and it’s packed with light cells. The macular does all the detail work when you are picking out faces.

“The disease only attacks that part of the vision, but quite often people get cataracts with that as well.”

I decided to walk back to the charity’s office in Beacon House wearing the macular degeneration simulators.

I was able to climb the steps out of the park without major problems but a slight incline near the top of the steps caught me off guard and I stumbled on to the sidewalk.

Near the street, a lack of depth perception caused another problem because it was hard to tell which cars were parked on the side of the road and which were stopped at the lights.

Mr Godber said: “With that level of vision, especially if someone has a condition that is only going to get worse, we recommend they start things like long-cane training while they still have vision so they have that tool in the box.

“But it’s a huge psychological step to have a cane. It’s an emotional thing, almost rubber stamping in your mind that your vision isn’t going to get better.

“People don’t regret doing it, but it takes work to get people to do it sometimes. Quite often they have to have an accident first.”

I was able to take off the goggles after the walk — but other people are not so lucky.

However, half of all cases of visual impairment are preventable.

Mr Godber said: “In Bermuda, we are looking at glaucoma and diabetes, and if people can control their diabetes they can prevent a lot of damage to their sight.

“The same is true with glaucoma. If people have glaucoma in their family — there is a high frequency of familial glaucoma — people should get their vision checked frequently.

“The sooner they detect it, the sooner they can treat it and stabilise the condition, but if people leave it and their sight is damaged, they can’t restore it.”