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Commentary: To empower a child for success in school and in life, start with an eye exam and a pair of glasses

Meghan Lynch and Ann Hollister | May 28, 2019

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Uncorrected vision conditions are among the biggest public health problems in the United States, affecting 1 in every 4 children, according to the American Optometric Association. Only 39 percent of students referred for an eye exam through a routine vision screening visit an eye doctor, and the gap is even larger in high-poverty communities. A California study by the Journal of Public Health found that as many as 95 percent of incoming first-graders in low-income communities who need glasses do not have them.

Uncorrected vision problems can worsen over time and interfere with children’s ability not only to see but also to learn and achieve their full potential. Vision is one the most powerful channels for learning; without clear eyesight, students may fall behind their peers during a critical time in their development and struggle to catch up, or even lose interest in school.

The good news is that the most common cause of vision impairment for children can be easily detected at low cost with a vision screening and an eye exam, and corrected with a simple pair of prescription glasses.

Inspired by programs delivering basic health care services like dentistry, immunizations and screenings to children at school, nonprofit optometry providers are bringing eye exams and glasses to students. For the past two years, our nonprofits, Vision to Learn and Helen Keller International ChildSight, have provided free on-site mobile vision services in elementary and middle schools in the Newark Public School district. Each child in need has received a screening (measuring both distance and near visual acuity, using a Snellen eye chart and Sloan near-vision cards, respectively), a comprehensive eye exam and a choice of frames from a wide variety of options. That amounted to nearly 26,000 screenings and more than 5,200 pairs of glasses.

The key to the success of the program, which was supported with funding from the Overdeck Family Foundation, was that the children received the services from program staff, optometrists and ophthalmologists at school, rather than having to travel elsewhere. This year, our program expanded to all students in pre-K to eighth grade in the Jersey City, Orange and East Orange school districts, and we expect to reach 31,000 students and distribute 6,300 pairs of glasses in these schools by next January.

Despite what we know about the important link between vision care and education, a recent study shows that in Connecticut and New Jersey, more than 23 percent of schoolchildren have not had a vision screening in the past two years — and 29 percent of children in New York have never had their vision tested. Nationwide, the statistics are even worse: 1 in every 3 schoolchildren in America has not had a vision test in the past two years, if ever.

To address the unmet needs for vision care among low-income urban communities in the U.S., some legislators and school administrators are forging partnerships with nonprofit leaders and philanthropists to ensure that children receive free vision screenings in school at an early age.

For example, in December 2018, the New Jersey State Senate passed a bill directing the state Board of Education to require children age 6 or under entering public schools to have a full eye exam in their first year of enrollment. On Jan. 10, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged in his State of the City address to provide every kindergartner and first-grader with free eye exams and glasses through an expanded public-private sector partnership. And a project in the Los Angeles Unified School District will offer eye exams and glasses to every student in need in grades K-12 over two years.

Despite this momentum, the problem remains enormous. Together, Helen Keller International and Vision to Learn have screened more than 2 million children and distributed more than 450,000 pairs of glasses, but we must do more to help children get the fair start they deserve. There are two important steps to take. First, we need to power a chain reaction that starts with parents and caregivers, so they understand the importance of routine vision care and know where and how their children can access care when they need it. This means better outreach and canvassing with community partners and reducing the barriers to entry through social media. Second, we need to ensure that legislators and school administrators harness the capacity, community relationships and know-how of expert nonprofit partners, as well as prioritize vision services in municipal budgets.

Access to vision care should not be a privilege afforded to the few. Ensuring that all children can see the blackboard is key to helping them fulfill their potential in school and in life.

Meghan Lynch is director of ChildSight U.S. at Helen Keller International. Ann Hollister is president of Vision to Learn, which was founded by L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. 

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