Skip to contents

New Vision: Equality Through Education
On VisionFact SheetsArticlesE-Sources and DownloadsAbout New Vision and ServicesContact

New Vision > On Vision > A Crash Course...

Visual Impairment

Most people, being more familiar with the stereotypes surrounding blindness than with the realities of it, may be under false impressions about how difficult it is to function normally with this condition.

Blindness, whether partial or total, need not be debilitating. With proper training and equipment, blind and visually impaired people can go on to lead normal lives as social contributors.

General Information About Blindness


Daily Living



General Information About Blindness

What is Blindness? (What do those numbers mean?)

Legal blindness is defined as vision of 20/200 (6/60) or less in the better eye with correction. In theory, a legally blind person would have to be standing one foot from an object to see it with the same clarity as his normally sighted counterpart could at ten feet. So, legal blindness is 10% of normal vision. A person can also be designated legally blind if he has a visual field of less than 20 degrees (tunnel vision). 

These numbers serve an important administrative function in the allocation of resources, but in a practical sense, a person can be functionally blind without meeting the criteria for legal blindness. So rather than using legal blindness as a standard, the United Nations defines a serious visual impairment as any amount of sight loss that hampers the ability to do daily tasks using traditional methods.

Only 10% of those classified as being legally blind have total vision loss.

Is being legally blind the same as having low vision?

No. Low vision is defined as vision between 20/70-20/199 in the better eye with correction.

What does it mean when a blind person has tunnel vision?

Whatever his acuity (i.e. 20/20, 20/70 etc.), a person with tunnel vision is considered legally blind when he has a visual field of 20 degrees or less. A normal visual field is around 180 degrees; people with normal fields have a panoramic view of the world, whereas those with "tunnel vision" see the world through the equivalent of a pinhole.  (What does the world look like with tunnel vision?)

Do totally blind people see darkness?

No. Totally blind people don't see anything, not even black. Depending on the condition, the brain simply doesn't process any information from the eyes. It would be like trying to view the world using the palm of your hand as the organ of sight.

Does being declared legally blind mean total blindness is inevitable?

It’s statistically unlikely that a legally blind person will end up totally blind.

Very few conditions that cause legal blindness are likely to cause total blindness. The common condition of Macular Degeneration, for example, causes central vision loss while leaving peripheral vision intact.

Most other conditions of this nature attack a specific part of the eye, thus damaging vision without destroying it completely.

Is visual impairment hereditary?

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't; this depends on whether or not a hereditary condition causes it. For more information on the possibility of heredity, look for information on the condition in question.

Is it true that most blind people are over the age of 65?

Yes. About 2/3 of those registered as legally blind are over 65.

Why do the eyes of blind people become cloudy? 

Visible cloudiness in the eyes can be caused by a condition called Cataracts (or occasionally, by infections). Not all blind people or people with low vision are impaired by this condition, so not every blind person has "cloudy eyes." There are numerous other eye conditions that, despite having the ability to cause visual impairment, are not readily apparent to a casual observer. Since treatments are available for some of them, it is important for everyone - especially for those who, like diabetics, are in "high risk groups" - to have regular eye exams.

Can blind people identify a person by his smell? Do they have better hearing?

No. A blind person's sense of smell is no more acute than that of a sighted person. The same is true for hearing. Blind people merely make more efficient use of their remaining senses out of necessity.

Aren't blind people "given" unique gifts (i.e. in music or sculpting) specifically as compensation for being blind?

No. Blind people are, first and foremost, people; they have the same range of gifts or abilities, and in the same proportion, is everyone else. There are no unique gifts or abilities associated specifically with being blind.


How do blind people get around?

Most use their canes. The adept can travel alone, and listen to traffic patterns for street crossings. They use the messages from their other senses to warn and guide them. Some use compasses for orientation. Most take public transit. Where that isn't available, many take the cab. For longer trips, some fly, some take trains, buses etc. They pretty much travel in the same way as anyone else, but without actually driving.

Do all blind people use canes or read Braille?

Since "blind" encompasses a wide range of visual acuity, some use canes, and some don't. Some read print, and some don't. It depends on visual acuity and personal choice.

Are all canes the same?

No. There are three main types, and within each type, many variations. There are numerous cane makers and each cane has different attributes. The three main types are the long cane, the ID cane, and the support cane. The long cane is used as a probe and bumper, to detect objects before the user encounters them. The ID cane is used as a means of identifying a person as having a visual impairment; it can also be used to detects depth. The support cane is usually used by seniors to support their weight, warn of changes in depth, and identify them as visually impaired. Some support cane users are younger people with additional problems that affect balance etc.

Sometimes white canes have red reflective tape on them. Does the amount of tape on a cane indicate the amount of visual impairment?

No. The red tape is usually just another way for the cane to stand out. In a few countries, however, red 'spiraling' tape is indicative of blind-deafness. Don't automatically assume that a blind person with red reflective tape on her cane is also deaf, though (especially not in Canada or the US).

Does cane length indicate the amount of visual impairment?

Not really, although less impaired people may carry the shorter, lighter identification canes instead of the long cane.

Can all blind people have guide dogs?

No. According to the Seeing Eye, only about 1% of the blind community use guide dogs.  Dogs aren't for everyone; some people are allergic, while others don't like animals or don't have the finances etc. 

Besides, dogs aren't always the best mobility option - especially not for someone who has not mastered the use of other mobility devices first. The person controls the dog, not the other way around. The dog responds to a series of commands and is directed by the "owner." Because of this, someone who has not learned to travel on her own would be unable to take full advantage of being part of a dog guide team.

Guide dogs do not read addresses or see streetlight colours, so the responsibility for orientation falls to the person. 

Are all guide dogs properly called "Seeing Eye" dogs?

No. Only dogs trained by the Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey are properly called "Seeing Eye" dogs. The rest are called guide dogs or dog guides. 

Daily Living

Can blind people sign their own names?

Most blind people can sign their own names. The totally blind often use signature guides to keep their writing line straight. The legally blind usually need no assistance.

How do blind people identify money?

Most blind people can identify coins by touch. They can also fold bills of different values in different ways for ease of identification.

There is no universal way to fold bills; each person does it differently according to her own needs and tastes.

How do blind people identify clothing, food etc.?

Most articles of clothing have distinctive characteristics that differentiate one from another. Other clothes can be tagged or labeled when necessary - although this is rarely required, because most blind people have enough vision to discriminate among colours.

As to food, they tell it by taste and texture. Again, most blind people have enough vision to tell one type of food from another visually, but those who don't can use the popular "clock" method. Blind people can arrange their own food on the plate, as if the plate were the face of a clock - placing the peas at 12 o'clock (top of the plate) and the meat at eight etc.

Can blind people cook?

Most can. Some make use of talking thermometers and marked timers for greater ease. There is a wide range of equipment, and a few labeling options, available for the visually impaired in the kitchen. 

Can blind people live on their own?

Yes. Sometimes blindness is accompanied by another condition that may impair the individual's ability to live alone, but visual impairment itself doesn't impede this. A properly trained blind person is as capable of independent living as a sighted person.

What about "homes for the blind"?

People with visual impairments do not commonly live in "homes for the blind" - in fact, relatively few such institutions still exist (in North America) for those who don't have additional problems.

Do blind people watch television/go to movies?

Yes. Blind people enjoy the same range of leisure activities as their sighted counterparts. The inability to see a movie doesn't necessarily make it less enjoyable.

For those movies with a strong visual component, Descriptive Video Services (DVS) are becoming more widely available.

Can blind people raise children?

There are good and bad parents among the blind, much as there are among the sighted. Blindness alone doesn't impede the ability to care for children; those with this condition simply adapt child rearing techniques to meet their needs.

Can blind people adopt children?

Most states and provinces throughout North America don't (officially) discriminate based on visual impairment alone. Some countries throughout the world, however, do, and so private agencies must acquiesce to the wishes of foreign governments in facilitating adoptions.

Because of this, it seems that the best way for a blind person to adopt is locally through the public system.

Are 70% of the blind really unemployed?

The short answer: Yes. This statistic (often) reflects the number of unemployed aged 16-64. Full time students who are visually impaired usually treat school as a form of work, since it takes up the bulk of their time and often precludes part-time employment in another venture. That said, most blind students don't work, or only work during the summer. Homemakers are also counted among the unemployed, as are people who have taken early retirement. The figure also factors in those who are both blind and have other disabilities. 


Do blind people attend regular school?

Most school aged blind kids attend regular school; many have pullout services in a resource room while spending most of the day with their sighted peers. Blind kids with concurrent disabilities are more likely to attend schools for the blind or to spend their days in specialized settings. Blind people also attend university, and often request services from the university office for students with disabilities.

When teaching music to a blind student, is it acceptable to use the words "up" and "down" in reference to the musical scale? Will this confuse him?

Some are under the erroneous but common impression that blind people, especially children, become easily confused when exposed to the multiple meanings of spatial terms. This generally isn't true; blind people use the same terms, and are capable of the same range of understanding, as their sighted counterparts. They won't confuse the "up" and "down" of the musical scale with the "up" and "down" of spatial orientation.

Will teaching a blind student multiple languages confuse her?

No more than it would anyone else. 


In what way is it appropriate to help a blind person?

First ask a blind person if he needs help, and with what. If he asks you to guide him around obstacles, allow him to take your arm - don’t grab his arm. Don’t push or pull him, either. Should you be asked to lead him to a chair, put his hand on the back of the chair; he can seat himself.

Is it okay to use words like "look" and "see" around blind people?

Yes.  Blind people use those terms all the time.

If you have a question, correction, or addition, e-mail the webmaster.

On Vision | Factsheets | Articles | E-Sources | About Us