Low Vision vs. Legal Blindness


What is Legal Blindness?

Legal blindness is not what most people think it is. It’s a level of vision defined by the United States government. The government uses the term “legal blindness” to decide who can get certain benefits, like disability or job training. It is not the same as being totally blind. If you’re completely blind, you can’t see any light or form. If you’re legally blind like 1.3 million people in the United States, you can still see — just not that clearly.


Normal (average) vision is 20/20. That means you can clearly see an object 20 feet what others can see at 20 feet. If you’re legally blind, your vision is 20/200 or less in your better-seeing eye. That means if an object is 200 feet away, you have to stand 20 feet from it in order to see it clearly but a person with normal vision can stand 200 feet away and see that object perfectly. Some conditions, like glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetes, can affect your sight to the point that you may be diagnosed as legally blind. You are also considered legally blind if you have a visual field (the total area an individual can see without moving the eyes from side to side) of 20 degrees or less (also called tunnel vision) in the better-seeing eye.


Update: In 2007, the Social Security Administration updated the criteria for measuring legal blindness when using newer low vision test charts with lines that can measure visual acuity between 20/100 and 20/200. Under the new criteria, if a person’s visual acuity is measured with one of the newer charts, and they cannot read any of the letters on the 20/100 line, they will qualify as legally blind, based on a visual acuity of 20/200 or less.


The state of legal blindness is determined while you’re wearing your latest glasses prescription. There is no such thing as legal blindness “with my glasses off.” There is also no such thing as being legally blind in one eye. Legal blindness, by definition, is based on the best-corrected visual acuity of the better-seeing eye.


Tests for Legal Blindness

Your eye doctor will check your vision during a standard eye exam. They’ll measure your eyesight while you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses. Your vision might fall below 20/200 without them. If it improves when you put on your glasses or contacts, you’re not considered legally blind.


What’s It Like to Have the Condition?

It varies from person to person. You might be able to see objects at a distance but your peripheral vision might be impaired like tunnel vision. You might have great peripheral vision but trouble seeing objects far away. In some states, being classified as legally blind may impact your ability obtain a license to drive. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. You can’t diagnose yourself with the condition. Your doctor has to make that call, so let them know if you’re having eye trouble.


If you you are legally blind, organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind can help. They have programs to help you deal with the physical and emotional effects of vision loss. Being legally blind affects your vision, but it doesn’t have to stop you from leading a fulfilling life. Contact the American Foundation for the Blind AFB Headquarters 2 Penn Plaza, Suite 1102 New York, NY 10121 Tel: (212) 502-7600 Fax: (888) 545-8331 For general information: Tel: (800) 232-5463 (800 AFB-LINE)