Most people are at least familiar with the term “legally blind”. However, few people actually fully understand what it means and how to know if you’re legally blind. Not only that, but many individuals are surprised by the fact that the term itself describes a government standard rather than a medical condition. Because it is such an important distinction that can impact the rights that you or a loved one may be entitled too, it’s important to understand the legal definition of the term as well as how to differentiate it from other vision impairments, identify its causes, and cope with its challenges.
What Is Legal Blindness?
You’ve likely heard someone use the phrase, “I’m legally blind,” to describe their eyesight without their glasses or contact lenses if their vision is severely impaired without corrective measures. Or you may even be one of the many individuals who assume that legal blindness is the same thing as total blindness or the complete inability to detect light or form. However, neither of these definitions is quite accurate.
Legal blindness is a determination that is used by law to control permitted activities, including driving, for reasons of safety or to regulate eligibility for certain government-funded benefits, such as educational, service, and monetary assistance. Legal blindness is defined by the U.S. Social Security Administration as:
1. Reduced central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in one’s better eye with the use of the best-suited corrective lens
2. Limitation of your field of vision to the extent that your widest diameter of vision in your better eye is not winder than 20 degrees.
How to Know If You’re Legally Blind?
Because an accurate determination of legal blindness can have such an impact on your daily activities and/or disability benefits, understanding how to know if you’re legally blind is important. To put it simply, you’ll need to have your eye doctor evaluate your vision during a standard eye exam to determine if you are legally blind.
Your doctor will assess your vision without your glasses or contact lenses as well as with them. If your vision falls below 20/200 without your corrective lenses, it does not mean that you are classified as legally blind. It is only if your vision is below 20/200 with your glasses or contact lenses that you are considered legally blind.
How Does Legal Blindness Differ from Other Visual Impairments?
Most people use legal blindness as well as other terms for different vision impairments interchangeably. Doing so, however, is inaccurate and can actually be rather confusing. Understanding the differences between each and knowing how to use the terms appropriately will help you better relate to and understand other individuals with visual impairments.
Three of the most commonly confused terms are legal blindness, total blindness, and low vision. None of these labels refer to the same condition of the eye. If an individual has total blindness, he or she cannot see anything. This includes lights, shapes, or shadows with either eye, which is quite different from legal blindness. On the contrary, an individual who has low vision may or may not be considered legally blind. In either case, though, his or her vision is impaired enough to interfere with his or her daily life. Generally speaking, a person is considered to have low vision if his or her visual acuity is 20/70 or worse with corrective lenses.
How Many People Have Legal Blindness?
Neither legal blindness nor total blindness are that common in the United States. In fact, most individuals with vision loss today do not fall in either of these categories. Rather, they are classified as having low vision. Roughly 2.4 million people in the country have been identified as having low vision, while only about 1.3 million are considered legally blind. Even so, an individual who is not classified as legally blind or totally blind may still experience a vision loss that is severe enough that it interferes with his or her ability to perform everyday activities, such as reading, walking, cooking, or driving.
What Causes Legal Blindness?
Many factors can contribute to legal blindness. In most cases, those factors fall into one of two categories: eye diseases/conditions or congenital defects.
What Diseases Can Cause Legal Blindness?
- Macular degeneration.
- Optic neuritis.
- Retinitis pigmentosa.
- Infections, including pinkeye.
What Congenital Conditions Contribute to Legal Blindness?
- Blocked tear ducts.
- Strabismus, crossed eyes.
- Amblyopia, lazy eye.
- Ptosis, droopy eyelid.
- Congenital glaucoma.
- Congenital cataracts.
- Retinopathy of prematurity.
- Visual inattention.
Who Is at Risk of Legal Blindness?
While legal blindness can be a result of an unforeseen accident or medical complication, there are several factors that increase one’s risk of legal blindness. Individuals who are at an increased risk of legal blindness include those who have:
- Diagnosed eye diseases, including macular degeneration and glaucoma.
- Uncontrolled diabetes.
- Had a stroke.
- Had eye surgery.
- Jobs near sharp objects or toxic chemicals.
- Premature births.
How to Cope with Legal Blindness?
If you have recently become legally blind, it is normal to feel frustrated or even slightly depressed; however, it does not mean that you have to stop living your life. As an individual with legal blindness, you have access to several assistive benefits that can help you find your new normal. For example, with legal blindness you qualify for vocational training, disability benefits, and even tax exemption programs available through the government. Likewise, agencies, such as the American Foundation for the Blind, provide assistive programs and opportunities to help you learn how to know if you’re legally blind and to manage your new vision challenge while still living your life.
If you know or are concerned that you have legal blindness, the first step is to reach out to your eye doctor. He or she can help you further determine how to know if you’re legally blind. They can then connect you with support and resources in and around your area to help you as you learn to understand and deal with your vision loss.