Legally Blind: What Does it Mean?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | February 2019 | Last updated: March 2020
If you’ve dealt with any kind of significant vision loss, your doctor might have mentioned the term “legally blind” to you. The term doesn’t mean that you are unable to see completely, rather, it is a term that refers to a level of visual impairment that enables you to be legally entitled to disability benefits.
Legally blind vision
In the United States, this means your central vision is 20/200 or less in the better-seeing eye, even with glasses or corrective lenses.1 It can also refer to a visual field of 20 degrees or less.1 Many people who are classified as legally blind still have some sight.
Legally blind vs. low vision
Being legally blind differs from having low vision in that individuals with low vision still have difficulty doing certain activities with corrective lenses, but their functional vision is improved with visual aids and adaptative strategies.
Coping with vision loss
Getting a diagnosis of being legally blind can be upsetting and cause an array of feelings, but it is still possible to live a full life and make adaptations to enjoy many of the activities you have always loved. Here are some ways to start making the necessary changes to help make the transition a bit easier. Seeking out a trained occupational therapist who specializes in individuals with visual disabilities might also be very helpful, as they can probably think of things that might slip your mind, or show you tips and tricks to improve your ability to perform everyday activities.
- Use lighting to your advantage. Aim light at what you want/need to see, and add light to dim areas or where you often wish you had more visibility.
- Make sure entryways and staircases are well-lit, to avoid potentially hazardous conditions.
- Use contrast: if your walls are dark, use light switch covers; you can also get glow-in-the-dark light switch covers.2 You can also have someone paint doorframes a contrasting color to make them stand out.
- Label and mark where you can, using high contrast: big, bold, black lettering on a white background for signs, put certain numbers of rubber bands around each of your medications and identify the medications by the number of bands, and mark the areas around stairways or ramps with paint or tape.2
- Tape down any throw rugs, or remove them completely.
- If you have electrical cords in high-traffic areas, either remove them or tape them down as far out of the way as possible.
Going out and about
- Ask friends and family for rides.
- If they aren’t able to or you feel funny doing so, see if your community has transportation services available for the visually impaired, like door-to-door paratransit services.
- You can also use Uber or Lyft through the apps.
- Take a taxi. It costs money and can get expensive, no doubt about it – but so is having a car. You would be spending money on gas, car insurance, repairs, and so forth.
When you’re out, you might want to use a white cane, to signify to others that you have trouble seeing. It can also help you navigate areas that are poorly lit or difficult to maneuver.
Talk with your eye doctor about what resources are available in your community!
Visual aids and adaptive devices
- Handheld magnifying lenses might be helpful when reading, along with large-print books. There are also computer display enlargement systems that make it easier to read things on a screen
- Speech-to-text software can be helpful for writing emails or letters.
- Adaptive appliances for individuals with visual impairment can make everyday tasks easier; these may include telephones with extra-large buttons, or clocks with large numbers and faces.
Specialists and other support
Living with any kind of impairment can be stressful, and living with legal blindness is no exception. Don’t forget your emotional health throughout all of this, either. If you need to, speak with a counselor about any frustrations or feelings of stress that might be related to macular degeneration or decreased vision. Other specialists that might be helpful can include occupational therapists (OTs), low-vision specialists, rehabilitation counselors, and experts in adaptive technological aids.
Talk with your doctor about what other patients have done to cope with low vision or legal blindness, and ask for information about any available local resources.