Twelve years ago, Bryan Shumway faced a major life change. He was losing his sight, his career as a welding inspector, and his way of life as he knew it. A routine eye exam revealed a serious problem. He underwent a lens transplant, and the diagnosis came later: retinitis pigmentosa. He now uses a cane to walk, relies on friends and family for rides, enrolled in online courses, and embarked on a whole new career in energy healing, public speaking, and life coaching.
But, the 55-year-old Whitehall, Pa., man did not get there alone. He did so with the sage counsel and support of others facing life-altering vision changes at Sights for Hope in Lehigh Valley and Monroe County. “It’s scary when you are losing your sight. You feel like your life is ending. I would highly encourage anyone to help seek the proper support. You’re not going to do this alone especially if you are losing your vision. You are going to need help and guidance,” Shumway said.
That is why we are raising the alarm about so many people putting off routine eye exams – as well as preventive overall health checkups – during the pandemic. It’s time to make those appointments – especially for young children whose healthy vision is critical to learning success.
With in-person kindergarten registrations canceled for the second straight spring and fewer people pursuing routine and preventative care, at least 15,000 children in the Lehigh Valley and Monroe County started school without receiving a vision screening or eye exam. Through data collected from our screenings, we know that approximately 10 percent of children have an undetected vision problem. So, with pandemic-related cancellations, we expect about 1,500 children in the Lehigh Valley and Monroe County to have unidentified vision problems. By starting these important years of early education without eye screenings, they are at a great disadvantage. About 80 percent of learning happens with vision.
To make matters worse, a recent study published in JAMA Ophthalmology shows an apparent link between extra at-home screen time during the pandemic with increases of myopia in children. That is why it is more important than ever for parents of children ages 3-5 to schedule an eye exam and for schools and daycare centers to offer them. According a 2019 brief from the CDC, on average of only 6 out of 10 preschoolers had their vision checked before the pandemic.
Adults should also pay attention to their eyesight and use the 20-20-20 rule to minimize eye strain given the increased amount of screen time during the pandemic. The 20-20-20 vision rule is a great tool to combat eye strain when looking at screens too much. The rule entails looking at something 20 feet away from your screen every 20 mins for a total of 20 seconds. With less time commuting to the office, adults are spending more time working and looking at screens for longer periods of time. According to Eyesafe Nielsen, in March of 2020, the first month of the pandemic, it is estimated that screen time per person 18 and up increased to about 13 hours a day.
Our health is paramount, and vision is part of that. There are several resources to help people maintain healthy eyesight. In the Lehigh Valley and Monroe County area, Sights for Hope, formerly Center for Vision Loss, empowers people with visual impairments to seize their independence and opportunity, and champions healthy eyesight throughout its communities. We combine a service of tradition motivated by Helen Keller in 1928 with contemporary practices and advanced technologies to offer vocational training, rehabilitation services, transportation to medical appointments and grocery stores, and social programs that enhance the quality of life for clients who face life with visual impairments.
For children, we offer free vision screenings that could potentially flag issues now that might impede learning later. In a typical year, we screen 8,000 or more children, most of whom are of preschool age. Our trained professionals use advanced hand-held screening devices that are highly accurate and especially effective with kids who are autistic, have other physical challenges, or have language problems.
While we are in a time in history when we are singularly focused on our health, we must remember that caring for ourselves also means we need to prevent illness. One major way to do that is to keep our regular medical checkup appointments and ensure that our eyes are every bit as important as other parts of our health.
Dennis Zehner is Executive Director and CEO of Sights for Hope serving the Lehigh Valley and Monroe County PA.