Help and support if you have a visual impairment
Being told you have a visual impairment that cannot be treated can be difficult to come to terms with.
Some people go through a process much like bereavement, where they experience a range of emotions - including shock, anger and denial - before eventually coming to accept their condition.
If you are diagnosed with visual impairment, you may be referred to a specialist low-vision clinic. Health professionals working at these clinics can help you understand your condition and cope with your diagnosis. They can also advise on practical things, such as vision aids and lighting, and let you know about further sources of help and support.
Probably the most useful thing you can do after being diagnosed with visual impairment is to contact a support group for people with sight loss.
Royal National Institute of Blind People
The UK’s leading charity for people with visual impairment is the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
The RNIB operates a helpline for people affected by visual impairment. The helpline is open from Monday to Friday from 8.45am to 5.30pm on 0303 123 9999. You can also email helpline staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The RNIB's website is specially designed for people with a visual impairment and provides a wide range of useful information and resources, and an online community.
The site also has an online shop that sells different products specially designed for people with a visual impairment.
Action for Blind People
Another useful organisation is Action for Blind People, a national charity that provides practical help and support for visually impaired people.
It’s particularly useful for advising on day-to-day practicalities of living with a visual impairment, such as adjusting your home to make it easier to get around and offers advice and courses on independent living, finances and employment.
It also has an online community where people can share experiences with others facing sight loss.
There are many local voluntary organisations around the country that provide support for people with visual impairment.
The website for their umbrella organisation, Visionary, includes a postcode search feature to help find organisations near to you.
It is recommended you contact your local social services department to inform them you have been diagnosed as having a visual impairment.
You may be entitled to a range of benefits as well as practical support, such as help with housework and cooking meals.
You can use the Gov.uk website to find your local council.
Changes to your home
Most people with a visual impairment can continue to live at home. However, you will probably need to make some changes to your home, especially if you live by yourself.
There are several important pieces of equipment you may find useful:
- Big-button telephone – both landline and mobile models are available from the RNIB online shop.
- Computer – the internet can provide a real sense of connection to friends and family as well as other people with a visual impairment. It is also a practical way of finding out information and obtaining goods and services. Big-button keyboards, screen display software and text readers are available from the RNIB.
- Community alarm – this small wearable device has an alarm button. If pressed it sends an alarm signal to a response centre, which will alert a nominated friend or carer. Your local authority should be able to provide you with more information.
- Bright lighting – bright light bulbs and adjustable lights are essential for your home, especially in the kitchen and the stairs (areas where you are most likely to have an accident). Fluorescent bulbs are recommended, as these produce the most light and tend to be cheaper in the long term than conventional bulbs.
The way your house is painted can also make it easier to find your way around. Using a two-tone contrast approach, such as black and white, can make it easier to tell the difference between nearby objects, such as a door and its handle or the stairs and its handrail.
Reading and writing
If you are having problems reading standard texts in books, newspapers and magazines, there are several options available.
One of the simplest options is to use one of a number of types of handheld magnifying device that you can hold over the page to help you read. These can obtained from a number of sources including hospital low visions services, optometrists, local voluntary organisations and the RNIB.
The RNIB also has a collection of large print publications you can borrow, as do most libraries.
Some people choose to use an e-reader to help them read. E-readers are handheld devices that allow you to download books and subscribe to newspapers and magazines on the internet. You can then set the device to display text at a larger size.
If you are unable to read at all, you could:
You can also install screen-reading software on your computer that will read out emails, documents and text on the internet.
A charity called Communication for Blind and Disabled People has released a free screen reader for the PC called Thunder. Similar software is available for Apple devices, although you may have to pay a small fee.
There are also voice recognition programmes where you speak into a microphone and the software translates what you say into writing. These programmes can also be used to issue commands, such as closing down the internet and moving from one website to another.
Some people who are severely sight impaired, particularly if they have had the problem from a young age, choose to learn Braille. Braille is a writing system where raised dots are used as a substitute for written letters.
As well as Braille versions of books and magazines, you can buy Braille display units, which can be attached to computers that allow you to read the text displayed on a computer screen.
Computer keyboards in Braille dots are also available.
The RNIB has more details about reading and learning Braille.
There are several different methods you can use to get around independently if you have a visual impairment.
Many people who are visually impaired find it useful to use a long cane when travelling.
This is a long, usually foldable, cane that can help you get around by detecting objects in your path. It also lets drivers and other pedestrians know you have a visual impairment.
To get the most from a cane, you will need to attend a training course in how to use it. The RNIB helpline can provide more details on training.
The charity Guide Dogs has been providing guide dogs for people with visual impairment for many years.
Guide dogs can help people with a visual impairment get around, providing both a sense of independence and companionship.
If you apply for a guide dog, Guide Dogs provide all the essential equipment free of charge and can offer financial assistance if needed for things like food or vet costs.
You don't need to have lost all your sight to benefit from a guide dog and you don't have to be officially registered as blind or partially-sighted to apply for one. See the Guide Dogs website for information about applying for a guide dog.
Guide Dogs also offer a number of other services for people with a visual impairment - even if you don't have a guide dog - such as Children and Young People's Services and mobility training.
The charity also provides the My Guide service, which aims to reduce the isolation that many people with sight loss experience, helping to rebuild their confidence and regain their independence.
Global positioning system (GPS)
GPS is a navigational aid that uses signals from satellites to tell you where you are and help you plan journeys.
GPS devices are available as stand-alone units that can be programmed using a Braille keyboard (see below), which tell you your current location and directions to where you wish to go.
If you have a smartphone, there are a number of GPS apps you can download.
The RNIB has more information on GPS products for people with visual impairment.
If you are diagnosed with a condition that affects your vision, you have a legal obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Failure to do so is a crime and can result in a fine of up to £1,000.
See the Gov.uk website for more information about driving and medical conditions.
If you are officially registered as having a sight impairment or a severe sight impairment, the DVLA will assume your driving licence is no longer valid and you will no longer be able to drive.
Occasionally, exceptions are made in people with mild sight impairment. If you think this applies to you, then your doctor will need to fill in a DVLA medical information questionnaire (PDF, 218kb).
You are only legally allowed to drive if you can read a number plate from a distance of 20 metres (65 feet) and an eye test shows your visual acuity is at least 6/12. You are allowed to wear glasses or contact lenses when reading the plate or letter chart.
There are also standards relating to your visual field and driving. If you have a condition that may reduce your visual field, the DVLA may ask you to undertake a visual field test to demonstrate you are safe to drive.
Read more about testing visual acuity and visual field.
If you are currently employed and have recently been diagnosed with a visual impairment, you should contact the Access to Work scheme.
Access to Work is a scheme run by Jobcentre Plus that provides advice and support on what adjustments and equipment may be required to enable you to do your job.
They also offer a grant to contribute towards the costs of any equipment or training that you may need, such as voice recognition software, a Braille keyboard and display unit and a printer that can convert text into Braille (Braille embossers).
Depending on the size of the company you work for, the grant can pay for 80-100% of costs, up to £10,000.
The Gov.uk website has more information on Access to Work.
If you are currently looking for work, there are three main organisations that can provide some extra advice and support:
You do not have to disclose you are visually impaired when applying for a job, but it is usually recommended that you do.
If you feel you have been turned down for a job because of your disability, and you were capable of doing the job, you can make a complaint under the Equality Act 2010.
Some people with a visual impairment decide to become self-employed, often because it allows them the flexibility to work at home for hours they choose.
Action for Blind People has self-employment advisers who can provide information and training on issues such as drawing up a business plan, obtaining funding and bookkeeping. Read more about self-employment on the Action for Blind People website.
Making the most of your sight
It is rare for a person with visual impairment to lose all their sight, so it is important to make the most of your remaining vision. The RNIB recommends:
- making things bigger – there are many products that have large numbers, letters or buttons
- making things brighter – shining a light directly onto an object can make it easier to see
- making things bolder – things stand out more boldly when there is a high level of contrast, such as a black cup on a white tablecloth
Read more about making the most of your sight on the RNIB website.
Caring for others
If you are caring for someone with a visual impairment, you should visit the Care and Support section of this website.
This section contains a wide range of useful information on all aspects of caring for others.
Page last reviewed: 10/10/2013
Next review due: 10/10/2015