Ask the Doctor: What does it mean to be legally blind?

Dr. Alexis Malkin

Each month, Dr. Alexis Malkin from the Prevention of Blindness Society of Metropolitan Washington’s ®  (POB) Low Vision Learning Center will answer common questions on eye health in our “Ask the Doctor” column.  Here is this month’s entry on legal blindness:

One of the first questions low vision patients ask when receiving the news that their vision can no longer be corrected with standard spectacles is: “Am I legally blind?”

There are many degrees of visual impairment and legal blindness is merely a categorization for a particular degree of vision loss. Legal Blindness falls in the range between moderate and severe visual impairment:

Understanding the intricacies of the definition of legal blindness, as well as the benefits that go along with this distinction is an important role that a low vision specialist plays.

Here are 5 important facts about legal blindness that you should know:

#1. Legal Blindness is defined by the Social Security Administration for determination of benefits. It is also used as a guideline for many other organizations that provide social services.

#2. Legal blindness can be based on visual acuity (central vision) or visual field (peripheral vision).

What is Visual Acuity?

Visual acuity of 20/200 in the best-corrected eye qualifies as legally blind. Essentially, this means that what the legally blind person can see at 20 feet, the average observer can see at 200 feet. A person cannot be legally blind in one eye when the other eye sees well just as they cannot be considered legally blind without their glasses.

What is a Visual Field?

Visual field of 20 degrees or less in the better eye qualifies as legally blind. The average person can see 140 degrees without turning his/her head.

#3 There are many programs that provide services for people who are legally blind. These include:

1.     State and Federal Income Tax Deductions

2.     Property Tax Deductions in many states

3.     Qualification for a handicap placard/license plate (even if the person who is legally blind no longer drives)

4.     Priority seating at many events (front of theater/aisle seats), as well as being seated ahead of the general time for doors to open

5.     Priority boarding/assistance at airports/train stations

6.     Discounted fares on major transit systems including DC Metro

7.     Qualification for accessible transit such as Metro Access or MTA Mobility

8.     Eligibility for the National Talking Books Service (through the Library of Congress)

9.     Eligibility for free radio/news programs such as The Washington Ear

10. Free 411 with direct dial through local phone carriers

11. Qualification for free telephones designed for people with vision loss

12. Qualification for independent living and vocational rehabilitation services through each state (and the District of Columbia)’s Departments of Rehabilitation

#4 Many of the above mentioned programs are also available to people who are visually impaired, but may not be “legally blind.”

#5 Most states do not allow drivers who are “legally blind” to continue driving. However, there are some states, including Virginia which have special licensing programs that do allow people with vision impairment up to the level of legal blindness to drive with restrictions, using a device called a bioptic telescope.

If you have questions about whether or not you or a family member is legally blind, ask your optometrist or ophthalmologist or schedule an appointment with a low vision specialist.

Feel free to contact me through the Prevention of Blindness Society for further information about any of the resources listed above.

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6 Responses to Ask the Doctor: What does it mean to be legally blind?

  1. Jessica dennison says:

    My eye doctor said my vision was 28/80 is tht bad?

  2. Katlin says:

    I have excellent vision in my left eye but no vision in my right would I be able to claim partial disability

  3. Bree says:

    “unless the person who is asking has visual field loss in that eye, they are not legally blind. They need to be worse than 20/100 in the better seeing eye, or have less than 20 degrees of visual field.” – Dr. Lexi Malkin

  4. eve tate says:

    I only have one eye and the vision is 20/25 am i considered lega
    lly blind?

  5. houa says:

    I don’t know where to start. The eye doctors that I’ve have gone to have never given me a prescription that is fully correct. I still have to adjust my eyes to focus and I am sure that it is getting worse. What step should I take? And does that mean I can never drive again? What can I do to lessen this handicap? I am worried…

  6. vicky says:

    Hi, I have a question. I was diagnosed with idiopathic neovascularization in my right eye, that gives me headaches,and difficulties to perform my job. My left eye is normal. Would that be a qualification for SSI?

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