Blindness and visual impairment
Almost 2 million people in the UK live with some form of sight loss (Source: NHS). About 360,000 people are registered as sight impaired or severely sight impaired (Source: NHS). Most people with blindness and visual impairment are older adults aged 50 and above, but people of any age can experience sight loss (Source: World Health Organisation).
Being told that you or someone you care for has a vision impairment can be a worrying time.
It can help to know the difference between blindness and visual impairment. Most people with vision loss are not completely blind. They may have some useful sight, but with cloudy vision, poor night vision, tunnel vision or other issues. A small proportion of people with sight loss are 'severely sight impaired', which means they're completely unable to see.
What is vision loss?
It's possible to have vision loss without being completely blind. You may have some useful vision but have a visual impairment that can't be corrected by wearing glasses or other treatments. If your vision deteriorates to a certain level, you can be registered as 'sight impaired'.
Having a visual impairment will likely affect your everyday tasks and activities. You might benefit from aids and adjustments to help you make the most of the vision you do have.
For example, you can use:
- Magnifying lenses to help view or read nearby objects.
- Bright lighting (for example, fluorescent bulbs) around the home and for specific tasks.
- Contrasting colours on everyday household items and features, such as light switches and handles.
- Technology such as tablets, audiobooks, and features on digital devices like smartphones that magnify text or read messages aloud.
Find out more about getting support and advice to make the most of your vision.
What is blindness?
Total blindness means being unable to see anything, for example, not telling light from dark or having severely limited vision or field of vision. If you have this degree of visual impairment, you can register as 'severely sight impaired' because you can't rely on your eyesight for everyday activities.
Children with severe sight impairment will benefit from having support from a very young age. This will help them learn the skills they'll need for everyday life. The right support at nursery, school and beyond, can help them achieve their full potential and be ready for an independent, happy adulthood.
It takes time to adjust to sight loss for the first time as an adult. You're likely to feel worried and uncertain about how you'll cope. There’ll be new skills to learn and changes to adapt to, such as learning braille. You can get support and advice from many different avenues:
- As soon as you're ready, we can support you with getting the most out of your vision and introduce you to groups that live with the same vision impairment.
- Your optician or ophthalmologist may refer you to a specialist low-vision clinic for assessment and practical advice about equipment and other support services.
- Social services should assess the support you need to stay independent at home, such as help with cleaning, cooking, mobility, and getting out and about.
- There's a wide range of assistive technology to help with everyday tasks – screen reading software, voice recognition programmes, apps and accessibility features on digital devices like smartphones.
- You might wonder how you'll get out and about – no one wants to lose independence or miss social events and activities we enjoy. Get our help for support with your mobility, for example, using a cane, having a sighted guide, or applying for a guide dog.
Types of blindness and visual impairment
Around two million people in the UK live with sight loss (Source: NHS). This isn't the same as blindness, and many people who are visually impaired due to common eye conditions can have treatment.
If you have vision loss that can't be corrected by treatment or wearing prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses, you might need help making the most of your vision. The kind of support you need will depend on the degree of your impairment. If your sight is significantly affected, your ophthalmologist may issue a certificate of visual impairment.
What causes blindness?
Blindness and vision loss can be congenital (present from birth), develop due to a range of eye diseases, or happen due to other conditions such as diabetes or cancer. Trauma and eye injury can also lead to vision loss. The prevalence of different causes of blindness varies in different countries. The leading causes of blindness in the UK are (Source: BMC Health Services Research):
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Under-corrected or uncorrected refractive errors (such as myopia and presbyopia)
Other less common causes of blindness include:
- Eye trauma (due to accidents and complications of eye surgery)
- Optic neuritis and neuropathy
- Retinitis pigmentosa
Congenital eye diseases that can cause visual impairment include cataracts, infantile glaucoma, and retinopathy of prematurity (in premature babies).
Treating visual impairments and vision loss
Many eye conditions that lead to sight loss can be managed with early diagnosis and prompt treatment, which is why regular eye exams are important. Treatment depends on the underlying condition responsible for vision loss. Treatments may include:
- Prescription glasses or contact lenses to correct your eyesight, often used in the early stages of cataracts.
- Medication, for example, eye drops to lower pressure in the eye in the case of glaucoma.
- Eye surgery to repair physical problems with the structure of the eye, for example, cataract surgery or retinal detachment surgery.
Where there is no treatment or the options have been exhausted, there are still many ways to make the most of the vision you have and adjust to living with blindness or visual impairment.
Vision loss symptoms
A range of symptoms can indicate the start of vision loss, depending on the underlying cause. Many conditions that cause blindness progress gradually, but symptoms may develop suddenly in some cases. If this happens, it's important to get medical help quickly.
Symptoms of the conditions which are the leading causes of vision loss in the UK:
When to get medical advice
Children and adults should have eye tests at least every two years. This is particularly important if you've been diagnosed with an eye condition or if there's a history of eye conditions in your family.
Always see an optician if you notice eye problems, including changes or worsening in your sight. Some symptoms need urgent attention – sudden loss of vision, seeing floaters, flashing lights, or a dark shadow passing across your vision.
Living with blindness and visual impairment
If you're living with blindness or a visual impairment, you're likely to need some additional support to manage life at home, work, and getting around. This could be help to make your home safer, training in skills for daily living, and guidance on getting around safely. There are lots of services and charities that can play a role.
Frequently asked questions
Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 18/10/2022
Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.