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What I Can or Cannot See
There Is More To Seeing Than Meets The Eye
by Fran Clever     Weott, California

"I'm sorry. To whom am I speaking?" has become a familiar phrase I use whenever I hear someone addressing me during a chance encounter in a store or on the street. I have to explain that I now have low vision, can no longer recognize faces, and ask people to identify themselves if we should meet again.

This is all because age-related macular degeneration, (AMD) is destroying my central vision. According to the National Eye Institute, AMD is the most common cause of vision loss for Americans age 65 and older. More than 1.7 million people in the United States have a form of AMD and the number is expected to increase as the population ages. To date, there is no cure for the problem. The good news is that people who have AMD will probably never be totally blind, as most will retain peripheral vision.

So just what is it I can or cannot see? Here the line must be drawn between what I can apparently see in a familiar setting, or what I am seeing in a strange place where I do not have access to all the adaptations and gadgets that enable me to live alone and take care of my daily needs without help. What I can't see is anything that requires sharp vision such as reading print material. This includes letters, forms, books, newspapers, magazines, menus, instructions, directions and signs including street signs.

Do I see TV? Yes and no. I see the picture, observe the movement, and hear the sound, but I cannot see details or read print on the screen. I can't see controls to operate appliances such as stoves, microwaves, thermostats, washers and dryers. In my own home, however, I know where everything is, and all my equipment is either very big, like my large keypad phone and big TV remote, or marked with bright orange plastic "bumps" such as those placed on the controls of my utility equipment so that I can use my sense of touch to operate them.

The two most used and essential devices to me are the closed circuit television (CCTV) and the computer. The CCTV enlarges all of my reading material, and the computer, equipped with the screen magnification program ZoomText, enables me to write letters and manuscripts, as it enlarges everything on the screen and also "talks" to me as I type. So, with the help of gadgets and adequate lighting, I can manage on my own but, put me in someone else's home and the situation is entirely different.

This difference was brought home very clearly one summer when I temporarily took refuge in a friend's house as smoke from a forest fire drove me from my home. I felt almost helpless as I realized I could not use a telephone, turn on the TV or use any household equipment. Since the house was not as bright as mine, lighting was a problem and I fumbled my way around the house and bathroom. I learned not to try to pour coffee or any other liquid into a cup or glass when away from home, especially if there is not any contrast between the liquid and the container. Pouring brown coffee into a brown cup or water into a clear glass will end up with liquid on the table. Oddly, things dropped on the floor can be seen. I had not realized how utterly dependent I am on the gadgets in my life that allow me to live alone. Thank goodness I had taken my talking books and tape player with me or I really would have been completely bereft of creature comforts.

Depth perception can be a problem in some places, especially when I'm walking in an unfamiliar area and of course, I am no longer able to drive. Shopping in stores is very difficult, as I can't read labels to identify contents or prices. Trying to find things in the frozen food case is an impossible task. I usually have to ask for assistance when doing major shopping. I have completely given up trying to shop for clothes as I am overwhelmed with the many items jammed together and I can't read labels for size and cost.

When company wants to tour the beautiful area where I live, I am able to direct them to special places from my memory of where everything is located. Just don't ask for my assistance in finding an address in a strange place.

So what can I see and what is forever lost? My surroundings and the lighting make a tremendous difference in what I can and cannot see. Therefore, don't judge my ability to see without taking into account my use of my other senses of touch, hearing and smell as well as my memory. If you visit me in my home, please don't move anything!

Editor's Note: For more information about AMD see NEI's publication  AGE-RELATED MACULAR DEGENERATION: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW . For assistance in learning to mark appliances and other household items, enroll in Hadley's free course, "Using Raised Markers."


The Hadley School for the Blind
700 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL 60093
Web site:

National Eye Institute
National Institutes of Health  2020 Vision Place
Bethesda, MD 20892-3655
Web site: 

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