Almost 30,000 of your friends and fellow community members are living with profound sight loss right here in the Granite State, and they are not receiving the services they could be. Less than five percent got help last year –only a scant 1,100 people. They live in large swaths of rural New Hampshire and in our cities. They are old and young; middle class and living in poverty. But, most of all, they need access to technology, education, and therapeutic services to make their lives better as they navigate life without sight or limited vision.
That is our quest. We changed our name recently from the New Hampshire Association for the Blind to Future In Sight simply because we know we are not reaching everyone we could be. The large majority of those we serve are not actually blind so embracing a larger circle of those with sight issues is our goal. With new innovations, medical advances, programs, and technology improvements, we are eager to bring those living on the fringes into the fold.
As Baby Boomers age, vision issues are only expected to increase. The Centers for Disease Control count three million people in the U.S. as having vision impairment with the prevalence of problems increasing rapidly with age, particularly for people ages 75 and up. Cases of age-related macular degeneration are expected to double by 2050 from 9.1 million to 17.8 for those 50 and up. Cases of diabetic retinopathy among people ages 65 and up are expected to quadruple by 2050 from 2.5 million to 9.9 million.
Vision loss, the CDC finds, can compromise quality of life because people have diminished abilities to live safely and independently, read, drive, watch TV, and socialize so they become more isolated. That is why we offer a range of peer support groups, classes, and even recreational activities to get individuals out rock climbing, skiing, hiking, skating, walking, and other activities adapted for the blind and visually impaired. Coming together to sew, cook, and manage other life skills creates bonds. There are playgroups that bring together infants, toddlers, and school-aged children with enrichment activities – as well as the parents who need support from each other. Most importantly, a caring community builds.
Just as those numbers increase for visual impairments so do the innovations to assist people to see better. One such example is eSight eyewear which uses a high resolution camera to enhance whatever the user with low vision is trying to see. In some cases, the digital device can improve visual acuity to near 20/20 vision, allowing sight-impaired users to work, go to school, and participate in recreational activities.
We are also working on the use of mobile and tablet technology to bring digitally accessible materials to children with vision loss through our new partnership with state Department of Education. And, we are working with developers of the Sunu band, a wearable technology that actually senses obstacles, objects, or hazards that are in the path of a visually-impaired person and helps them walk around or orient them discreetly. The idea is that it offers a heightened sense of awareness and improves mobility – and therefore quality of life.
Ensuring that those with visual impairments can find and get the help and resources they need is one hurdle that must also be overcome. Strategic partnerships are imperative. Throughout our 105-year history, Future In Sight has relied on alliances with doctors, assisted living centers, hospitals, caregivers, schools, and other institutions to help our clients. We recently partnered with Crotched Mountain Foundation’s ATECH Services to expand the availability of education services for blind and visually impaired children across the state, and we have emerging partnerships with statewide Lions Clubs and the Veterans’ Administration New England Healthcare to bring similar support.
Let’s really look forward to the future together. If you have relatives, friends, or neighbors who you know are struggling to see, help them reach out to us by calling 224-4039 or visiting futureinsight.org. We can take their hand and guide them from there.
(David Morgan is President and CEO of Future In Sight, formerly New Hampshire Association for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that is transforming the lives of the blind and visually impaired across New Hampshire and beyond.)