Low Vision

Reviewed by Donna M. Wicker, O.D.

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What Is Low Vision?

Low vision is a reduced level of vision that cannot be fully corrected with conventional glasses. It is not the same as blindness. Unlike a person who is blind, a person with low vision has some useful sight. However, low vision usually interferes with the performance of daily activities, such as reading or driving. A person with low vision may not recognize images at a distance or be able to differentiate colors of similar tones.

You are legally blind when your best corrected central acuity is less than 20/200 (perfect visual acuity is 20/20) in your better eye, or your side vision is narrowed to 20 degrees or less in your better eye. People who are legally blind may still have some useful vision. If you are legally blind, you may qualify for certain government benefits. It is estimated that approximately 17 percent of people over the age of 65 are either blind or have low vision.


  • Difficulty recognizing objects at a distance (street signs or bus signs)
  • Difficulty differentiating colors (particularly in the green-blue-violet range)
  • Difficulty seeing well up close (reading or cooking)

The symptoms described above may not necessarily mean that you have low vision. However, if you experience one or more of these symptoms, contact your eye doctor for a complete exam. Your eye doctor can tell the difference between normal changes which are common with age and changes caused by eye disease.


Although low vision can occur at any stage in life, it primarily affects the elderly, but is not a natural part of aging. Although most people experience some physiological changes with age (presbyopia), these changes usually do not lead to low vision. Most people develop low vision because of eye diseases. Common causes of low vision, particularly with older adults, include macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. When vision impairment is recognized early, treatment can be more effective, enabling people to maintain as much independence as possible.

Tests and Diagnosis

To determine the extent of your useful vision, you will need to have your eyes examined. The examination for low vision differs from a typical eye examination. During a low vision examination, your doctor may administer the following tests:

  • Refraction (to assess your vision and determine the prescription for your glasses, if glasses may be of any use)
  • Visual field (to assess your peripheral vision)

Because low vision examinations may involve a variety of tests, they are often more time consuming than standard examinations. For instance, refraction may be done through a telescope or trial lens frame so you can judge which lens is best.

Treatment and Drugs

The Kellogg Eye Center Low Vision and Visual Rehabilitative Services Clinic embraces a multi-disciplinary approach to the treatment of low vision. Ophthalmologists, optometrists, and occupational therapists make up the team of health care professionals who will work with you starting with your vision examination, and continuing with you to identify treatment options, which include:

  • Optical devices to help you adapt, such as magnifiers, telephones, or closed-circuit televisions
  • Techniques to help you utilize your remaining vision
  • Environmental modifications to maximize your remaining vision
  • Adaptive non-optical devices, such as large-print cookbooks and talking watches.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy programs at Kellogg may last as long as several months or be as brief as one session. Sessions may include an evaluation of your environment and suggestions for modifying your home to enable you to become more independent and to improve safety.

Low Vision Aids

Many types of assistive devices are available to help people with low vision. These items include special glasses and other magnification devices and large print reading materials. Other communication aids include computer software and various other technological devices.

Additional Resources

Kellogg Eye Center Resources

The U-M Kellogg Eye Center has a number of publications available for our patients with low vision and their families. Helpful Hints for Families of the Visually Impaired is available in PDF format which can be viewed with Acrobat Reader. If you don't already have it on your computer you can download Acrobat Reader.

Join the Living with Low Vision support group sponsored by the Kellogg Eye Center. The group meets on the second Wednesday of each month from 2:00 - 4:00 in the Faculty Dining Room on the mezzanine level of the Kellogg Eye Center.

The Henderson library is open to use by patients and their families, members of the community, physicians and other health care providers. Please see the library for a list of low vision resources.

The Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled's online Resource Guide offers an alphabetical listing of businesses and agencies providing products and services to individuals with vision loss, including subject index. http://wlbpd.aadl.org/wlbpd/resources

Other Resources

These websites are not operated by the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. Kellogg Eye Center is not associated with these websites in any way, nor does it endorse or take responsibility for any of the content. These links are provided for the convenience of our users.

Clinic Information

For more information, see the Low Vision and Visual Rehabilitation and the complete Clinic Services listing of the U-M Kellogg Eye Center.

Last Modified: Tuesday, 20-Sep-2016 15:46:55 EDT