Low Vision Exam. What is it? Who Needs it? What Comes Next?

woman painting and viewing image on a large desktop magnifier

by Dr. Alexis G. Malkin, OD and David Bradburn, AT Specialist, HumanWare

As we age, our eye sight changes and sometimes people develop eye conditions where and reading, writing, recognizing faces, watching TV, or driving a car can become more difficult over time. Scheduling regular eye exams for yourself, a parent, or someone close to you is an important part of a healthy, active lifestyle.  

Depending on the exam, an eye care professional may recommend prescription low-vision glasses or several low-vision aids or devices to help you maintain your hobbies and daily activities. But what exactly is the difference between a regular eye exam and a low vision exam?  

Types of Eye Exams

When we hear the term “eye exam” most of us think of the routine eye exams we receive at from our eye doctor or perhaps a series of exams with an ophthalmologic specialist. These routine exams are important, even if we do not wear glasses or contact lenses. An eye exam can reveal a lot about our general health. The general recommendation is that adults should receive a comprehensive eye exam every two years unless there are other factors such as a family history of eye disease, in which case your doctor may prescribe more frequent visits.  

A low vision exam focuses on functional vision and helping people return to a level of visual function and independence that they may have lost since developing an eye disease. Low-vision doctors work with patients to understand their goals whether those goals are related to vocational needs, independence with daily living, or hobbies and other interests.  

Low Vision Exams 

The low vision exam consists of an extensive functional history as well as a detailed assessment of a glasses prescription. Once completed, the doctor helps determine what other devices or strategies will be most helpful for the patient. Devices can include, but are not limited to: 

  • Strong glasses for specific tasks 
  • Optical magnifiers 
  • Telescopes 
  • Electronic magnifying systems 
  • Computer/cell phone accessibility 

In addition, low-vision clinics also educate patients about community resources, mobility training, and transportation access. Check VisionAware Directory of Services to find these services.

Most people seeking low vision services are affected by age-related diseases which include macular degeneration, glaucoma, and complications from diabetes. Each of these conditions affects vision uniquely but can limit a person’s ability to see faces, read the small print, and walk or drive safely. For these reasons, low vision exams are very individualized to a patient’s specific needs and goals.  

Low Vision Tools and Solutions

If you or someone you know is diagnosed with vision loss, there are services and products available to help maintain an independent lifestyle. Electronic magnifiers are one of those products. There are many different types of electronic magnifiers: some are handheld and small enough to fit in your pocket, while others are designed for placement on a desk or table. 

Digital Handheld Magnifiers

portable digital magnifier with stand
digital handheld magnifier

Handheld magnifiers are generally equipped with a 5 to 8-inch screen. They can magnify an object up to 30 times and display text in contrasting colors for easier reading. 

top photo--handheld magnifiers
bottom photo-
portable video magnifier

Portable Video Magnifiers

At 16 inch or more, portable video magnifiers are a little larger than hand-held devices. They are foldable for carrying. With the added size, portable video magnifiers can also include more functions. Some of those functions include optical character recognition (OCR) and text-to-speech (TTS) technologies that convert printed words into speech. They can also have the capacity to view objects across a room. 

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