Veronica With Four Eyes

Learning To Explain Usable Vision

One of the most common questions I receive from others when they notice that I have low vision or use a blindness cane is “what can you see?” The answer to this question has changed many times as I have dealt with many different short-term and long-term issues related to how my eyes perceive the world around me, though by knowing how much usable vision I have and what I can see, I have been able to confidently manage my visual impairment and adapt to any challenges that may come my way. Here are my tips for developing a basic explanation for usable vision, and figuring out what you or someone else is able to see.


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If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately.

Are you able to see things that are farther away? How far?

A lot of people assume that everyone with any form of vision loss are unable to see things that are far away, or alternatively that they are able to see objects that are fairly close by. Some people with low vision will answer this question by giving their visual acuity (i.e 20/200), while others will say that they can see items from a certain distance, such as three meters away. When I’m working with younger students I typically will ask if they are able to see the TV, the board in the classroom, or their friends at recess.

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Can you read standard-sized print on a screen/page? Do you need to magnify them in any way?

When I was younger, I wasn’t sure how to explain to people around me that I had a lot of trouble reading small print, because I was under the impression that glasses were supposed to make me see perfectly and that the text I was supposed to read was blurry for everyone. Because of this, one of the first questions I now ask people to answer is if they are able to read print on their computer screen, on a page, in a book, or in other places. If they answer no, we then talk about what font size they can read, and if they need any specific contrast settings or font to be able to read- for example, one student I worked with preferred yellow text on a black background and used a screen magnifier at 200%.

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Are you able to see things directly in front of you clearly?

So this question is slightly different from the “how far can you see” question, as some people have an intact peripheral vision but have issues with their central vision. I’ve also had people answer this question by describing how they have trouble seeing their computer, phone, or other devices unless they are at a specific angle. Both are valid answers to the question, though if someone talks about their devices I will typically recommend adjusting accessibility settings accordingly so that they can use it more easily.

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What about items that are next to/around you?

While some people may have intact central vision, they may have limited peripheral vision that makes it difficult to see items around them, and in extreme cases can make it seem like they are looking through a straw. It’s helpful to know if someone has limited peripheral vision because that can impact how they position themselves when using a computer or in a classroom, as well as how they arrange furniture in familiar environments- many people with limited peripheral vision will run into objects around them if they do not see them.

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Do you have any floaters or other things that distort how items/text look?

Some eye conditions and injuries cause people to have solid or translucent floaters, blurry eyesight, double vision, flashes of light, or visual snow/static that makes it difficult to make out objects or text. It’s important to note these things when explaining usable vision to a doctor, as they can be signs of further vision complications and can impact how much usable vision someone has.

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Are you sensitive to lights? Does the lighting in a room impact how well you can see?

I wear purplish-gray tinted glasses because I am sensitive to bright lights and develop eyestrain fairly quickly if I have to look at a bright screen or bright room without my normal glasses. One of my friends described their light sensitivity by saying that when they walked outside, it was like someone threw a white sheet over their head because their eyes were not able to adjust to bright sunlight well. Knowing what lighting environments work well (and which ones don’t) is an important part of understanding usable vision and designing accessible spaces.

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Do you use any specific mobility aids or tools to help you navigate unfamiliar places?

For people who use tools such as blindness canes, guide dogs, or human guides, it is helpful to mention that you use these items in unfamiliar areas when explaining usable vision. Being able to travel/navigate independently is a very important skill, and I strongly recommend talking to a certified orientation and mobility specialist if this is an issue- the state department for visual impairment often can provide recommendations.

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What is the best way for people to help you?

When I started at a new internship, one of the questions I was asked was how people could best help me if I had an accessibility issue. In my case, I said that I would ask for help with walking in an unfamiliar place or with reading text out loud, though people should not assume that I need help unless I ask for it. For students in a classroom setting, it’s helpful to mention specific classroom accommodations or ways that others can help, while preserving as much independence as possible.

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Final thoughts

While it may seem difficult to explain what I see to those who see differently than I do, I have found that asking myself these questions has helped me tremendously with being able to develop a brief but descriptive explanation of what I see, instead of trying to figure out on my own what I can’t see. I hope this post on explaining usable vision is helpful for others as well!

Learning To Explain Usable Vision. Questions to ask when developing an explanation about usable vision and accurately answering the question "So what can you see?"