M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Budget cuts threaten low-vision assistance 

Barbara Knight lost much of her vision in 2007 to cataracts and pseudotumor cerebri (fluid retention around the brain). Simple tasks such as shopping, reading the daily mail or her 17-year-old son's report card are things that Barbara can no longer do without assistance.

Through the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Knight was able to get devices like a magnifier to help her read. Donations from Wish Book readers will help Vista Center cover the cost of treatment for other low-vision patients.

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(Pauline Lubens / Mercury News)

By C.J. Hirai / For the Mercury News

Imagine a world of shadows and darkness, where driving is unfathomable, where crossing the street is fraught with danger and where familiar faces are unrecognizable — even up close.

That's the world inhabited by Barbara Knight of San Jose and about 400,000 other Californians who suffer from low vision. They are not legally blind, but their vision is so severely limited that the simple tasks of daily life can turn into nearly insurmountable hurdles.

"It's like my freedom was taken from me," says Knight, a former ride operator at Great America in Santa Clara and an Intel silicon chip tester who is on welfare now, unable to work because of her poor vision. "I'm at the mercy of others now."

California's budget fiasco this year resulted in the elimination of optometry and optical services for adults 21 years and older, though there are exceptions for residents of nursing homes. As a result, those who least can afford health care coverage are no longer covered for low-vision evaluations and aids, leaving them at greater risk for injuries, accidents and depression.

Knight, a 53-year-old single mother of a 17-year-old son, was lucky. She was still able to get help from the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which serves San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, thanks to its scholarship fund that pays for services for those in need.

But others in the future may not be so fortunate. Their numbers are expected to grow, too, as the elderly population in this country does, because low vision is typically caused by age-related conditions such as macular degeneration, diabetes, brain or eye injury, or conditions at birth such as albinism.

"We had money in the fund then to help Barbara," says Carolyn Dingman, a licensed clinical social worker at the center. "But that fund is zero now."

Vista Center
Dr. Marge Geronimo, right, talks to patient Evelyn Minnig about devices to assist her in seeing at Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Low Vision Clinic in Palo Alto. Though Minnig has her own private insurance that covers the visit, Wish Book readers donations can help fund this kind of treatment for low-income people.

(Pauline Lubens / Mercury News)
Even though Vista's Low Vision Clinic won't turn away anyone in need of help, Dingman says it may be a struggle to continue to offer the breadth of services it once did to the more than 300 patients it sees annually, the majority of them seniors and those with little income.

Knight, a gregarious New Orleans native, still remembers the January day last year, when her vision started turning cloudy.

"It was like it was raining all the time," says Knight, who also began experiencing headaches. It wasn't long before her condition worsened. "Everything started looking orange and brown like a 'Terminator' movie."

Doctors discovered she had cataracts and pseudotumor cerebri (fluid retention around the brain). In a six-hour operation, a shunt was threaded from her head, down her neck and to her stomach to better regulate fluid and alleviate the high pressure that had built in her eyes. The surgery stabilized her condition, but wasn't able to reverse the damage already done.

Knight can no longer drive. Instead, she walks a half-mile to the bus stop or relies on others to take her to doctor's appointments or the supermarket. Because low-light situations make seeing anything a real struggle, she tries to get home before dark.

The Vista Center outfitted her with a monocular that helps her see bus numbers more clearly and a lighted magnifying glass so she can read her mail, instead of asking her son do it for her. At home, she has a telephone with an extra large keypad. She bought herself a man's watch — which has a large dial so she can tell the time — and decorated the band with sparkly jewels to give it a girly flair.

Vista Center provides mobility instructors who go to a client's home, then walk with them to stores or church to determine the safest route. Instructors also offer tips on cooking safety, monitoring medications and how to organize a closet so black clothing is distinguishable from navy.

Knight is grateful to the Vista Center for the difference it has made in her life.

"It would have been harder without all of this," she says. "It would have made me even more dependent if I hadn't had these services."

A low-vision eye exam, a 90-minute evaluation that can measure vision to an extremely fine degree, costs $210. Adaptive devices, such as magnifiers, telescopic lenses and special contrast-enhancing sunglasses, can cost $20 to $250. Wish Book readers' donations in $50 increments will help the Vista Center build a fund that would help provide these low-vision services and visual aids.

$50 donation to support Vista Center's fund for low-vision assistance

Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972.

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