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Release: Nov. 13, 2000

UI pediatric low vision outreach begins 20th year of assisting children

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Even with the best medical care, some children's vision impairments cannot be fully reversed. In these cases, statewide services that are available with the help of the University of Iowa Pediatric Low Vision Service can assist youngsters, from birth to age 21, in developing skills to compensate for their low vision.

Now beginning its 20th year of service, the program is considered a model program in rural states. Coordinated through the Iowa Braille School, the Iowa Department of Education, local education agencies and the UI department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, the program assists 250 to 300 children annually.

Each spring and fall, UI eye care experts and other professionals travel throughout Iowa to provide free evaluations and support services to children and young adults whose visual impairments make it difficult for them to read, write, use computers, watch television or be physically active.

"The program couples medical and educational expertise to develop solutions that help children with visual impairments function in school and at home," said Mark Wilkinson, optometrist and director of low vision rehabilitation services at the UI Center for Macular Degeneration.

The UI low vision service also includes Christine Sindt, optometrist, and Patti Heitshusen, clinical technician, both in ophthalmology and visual sciences. Wilkinson started the program in 1981 through the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School.

"We saw an unmet need in Iowa," he said. "Children who were visually impaired were not receiving sufficient care."

Low vision services can help a child gain literacy, independence and the ability to get around safely. The program also helps educate parents and teachers, so they know how to best help students. Over the years, the service has expanded in many ways, including services provided closer to students' homes, improved follow-up services and the evaluation of a greater number of younger children.

Low vision symptoms included blurred vision, central field loss, distortion and tunnel vision. Children treated through the program were born with a low vision problem or later acquired one, sometimes due to injury. Some children also have other disabilities, which is one reason the low vision team includes not only eye professionals and technology consultants but also social workers, occupational therapists, education experts, early intervention specialists, and orientation and mobility specialists.

"Treating a visual impairment involves more than getting a better pair of glasses," Wilkinson said.

Even with corrective lenses, a child's best-corrected distance vision may be only 20/200 rather than 20/20.

Children may be taught to use optical devices such as telescopes, filters to reduce glare, and electronic magnification on computers or special televisions to enlarge print for reading and writing. However, because many children with visual impairments may have another disability, optical devices are not always an option.

Non-optical devices include bold-tipped pens, audio tapes and illumination devices. While large-print books and magazines can be useful, the UI Low Vision team found over the years that they are usually not the best solution for school-aged children.

The 'head-sweep' required to read a large book can be time-consuming and tiring, the team has reported. In addition, large books are expensive, often do not fit into school desks or lockers and limit reading choices, particularly when individuals move on to college and the work place.

"Overall, the pediatric low vision service allows children with visual impairment to function at their highest potential in educational, vocational and avocational activities," Wilkinson said. "The program has allowed these children to lead qualitatively better lives."

For more information about statewide low vision services for children, call the UI Low Vision Rehabilitation Service at (319) 356-8301 or the Iowa Braille School at (319) 472-5221, extension 1202.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.