Sight and vision are not the same thing. Sight is a matter of acuity — how clearly you see and the health of your eyes. Vision is determining how to use the images your sight presents to you. A person can have 20/20 sight (ability to see a 3/8-of-an-inch letter from 20 feet away) and still have poor vision. “It’s a learned system,” says Dr. Richard Meier, a fellow of the College of Optometrists and Vision Development. “You learn how to use your visual system just like you learn a computer or any other tool,” says the Reno doctor.
Vision therapy helps patients learn just that. “It is teaching a set of skills that are learned and developed,” says Mary Carroll, optometrist and OD in Las Vegas. “We work at remediating skills if they are not developed properly or enhancing skills that already exist.” Carroll, who has been a vision therapist for about 30 years, works with athletes, children having trouble in school, adults with traumatic brain injuries, and professionals who just want to be able to sit longer at a computer terminal without headaches, among others.
Meier stresses the key to vision therapy is to find out what patients want and then help them achieve their goals. There are few goals Meier does not see as achievable. He has seen children go from failing marks in special education classes to A’s in regular classes; athletes go from trying to winning; lazy eyes turned healthy and normal. Through vision therapy, he has even seen autistic children learn to communicate through computers. “I deal a lot with people who have been told nothing can be done,” he says, and then he designs a way for them to do what they want to do anyway. “Vision therapy is the best kept secret in town,” he laughs, citing case after case of near-miracle improvements.
It’s a secret Meier and Carroll refuse to keep to themselves. “We need people to know we’re out here,” says Carroll. “A big part of our work is education, and that’s a slow process.” Meier says one of his pet peeves is what children are told. “I don’t want kids failing, or being told they can’t do something when it’s just a process of teaching them how to see.”
So how do you know if you or someone you know needs vision therapy? Get an evaluation (along with a traditional eye exam) from a vision therapy practitioner. Some symptoms of vision problems include: light sensitivity, problems reading, loss of field of vision, tracking problems (may be identified by a teacher, or a businessperson who can’t seem to get ahead of paperwork), slow reading speed, excessive fatigue while reading or working at a computer, laying on your arms when you work or study, moving reading material closer or farther away, waning concentration, red eyes, frontal headaches, writing that doesn’t follow the lines or tends to go up or downhill and twisting or skipping columns when working with numbers.
Following are some easy exercises anyone can do to help use their visual system more effectively.
• When working on a computer, look up from the terminal every 10 minutes.
• Get up and move around every half-hour.
• In the office, Meier uses a Hart Chart with 90 letters 3/4 of an inch high, placed 10 feet away. The object is to read a letter from the chart, then one up close, and back, moving only the eyes, reading 90 letters per day.
• Take a page with 20 lines of text; read aloud the first and last letter of each line. The goal is to be able to do 20 lines in 25 seconds. Do this 20 times per day.
• Take a piece of paper with text and, using a pen, trace a line under the first word, up between the first and second, over the second, down between the second and third and so on, drawing an over-and-under, zigzag line without hitting any letters. Do 100 words per day.
These simple exercises take only a few minutes a day and can be done while on the phone or waiting for calls. The key is to do more with your eyes than stare at a computer screen or pages of print all day long.
In-office vision therapy is much more in-depth and high-tech than the above exercises. From lenses to prisms to computers, the in-office treatment is intense. And every program is individualized for what the patient wants to accomplish. There are hundreds of different activities the therapist can choose from in order to customize a program.
According to Meier, 80 percent of the world is taken in through the visual system, and in the end, it’s not just about seeing better, but living better as well.