Childhood vision care affects literacy

May 30, 2012

Susie An

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(Flickr/Casina Royale)

For most of us, reading is as simple as looking from left to right. But if the letters are out of focus, then it could be impossible to read. Without proper vision care, students could fall behind.

Students at Fort Dearborn Elementary School on Chicago's South Side are reading a message on the chalkboard.

"Kids, just do the right thing. The more often you do anything…," they read.

Tia Hayes is one of them. She’s a math-loving fifth grader who’s always struggled with her vision.

"I couldn’t see the board, or I couldn’t see the charts or I couldn’t see anybody far away. My mama got the same vision as me. So I used to put her glasses on and I still used to squint a little bit when I had them on because it was really hard for me to see," she says.

".... of academically and behaviorally at-risk children ages 8 to 18 years old, 85 percent had vision problems that were either undetected or untreated."

Tia got a new pair of glasses this year, a stronger prescription. She actually got her first pair after a required examination during preschool. That’s helped her keep her grades up, which is important for her future ambitions.

"I want to be a doctor. I want to go to college to be a nurse and to study medical," Hayes says.

There are many students like Tia who have problems seeing, but not all of them get the care they need. And that can make learning very frustrating and difficult.

Dr. Joel Zaba has been studying vision and learning for decades. He’s a practicing optometrist from Virginia.
 
He says that 80 percent of what we learn comes through the visual processing of information. And that visual reading requires a number of skills and not just the ability to see clearly.

"Focusing ability and there’s teaming ability and the motility of your eye movement ability. [It] is very important. And these are skills that are needed because that’s what you’re doing at 16 inches, when you’re reading," Zaba says.

At 16 inches away is about the distance we should be reading comfortably at a close distance.

In his research, Zaba found that of academically and behaviorally at-risk children ages 8 to 18 years old, 85 percent had vision problems that were either undetected or untreated.

In Illinois, schools are required to administer eye exams in preschool, kindergarten, 2nd and 8th grades.

Most other states around the region only require a vision screening. But nationwide, 9 states, including Wisconsin, don’t require any type of eye test at all.

Zaba says screening alone could miss a lot of underlying problems that aren’t always noticeable even to the child.

"When you think about it, it’s an invisible problem. I mean, a child isn’t going to raise his hands and say I’ve got accommodating binocular disorder at 16 inches. They’re just going to close the book and act out," he says.

Zaba says years ago, some students with undetected vision problems were labeled lazy or underachievers. And sometimes kids who knew they needed glasses, refused because it wasn’t trendy among their classmates.

He says some of those past students could make up part of the 22 percent of American adults who are below the basic literacy level today.

"Possibly ⅔ of an illiterate adult population had some of these problems. And you can see how that certainly could interfere with their ability," Zaba says. "And it’s been estimated that vision disorders are the fourth most common disabilities in the United States, and one of the most prevalent handicapping conditions in children."

Currently, the Vision Care for Kids Act of 2009 is stuck in a Senate committee. The passage of this bill would provide care for kids with visual impairment, including comprehensive eye exams and treatment.

Chicago fourth grade teacher Teresa Horney saw the impact that treatment had on one of her students this year.  

"I actually have known him since he was in kindergarten. He’s now in fourth grade. A struggling student academically a bit, very quiet," she says.

Horney says the student always moved to the front of the class to copy things from the board. So she referred him to get his eyes checked and things changed.

"He’s a new student. His confidence is there. He’s participating twice as much. I’ve seen his grades go up," she says.

And not only that, Horney says the whole class has gotten behind him.

"We say he has magic glasses because everything has changed and when he has his glasses on everything is so much clearer to him and not just vision, but academically," she says. "Everything just seems to click."

And she says all it took was one simple test.