How Occupational Therapy Can Improve Life With Low Vision
Scientifically reviewed by: Preeti Subramanian, PhD
Occupational therapy offers tools, techniques, and treatments to help people with low vision navigate their daily lives and environments with greater ease, safety, and comfort. Allysin Bridges-German, a licensed doctor of occupational therapy and clinical assistant professor at Towson University, specializes in helping patients with low vision and explains how occupational therapy can help them.
What is an occupational therapist?
Occupational therapists (OTs) work with people who have experienced any kind of injury or illness that affects their functioning. Low vision OTs like Dr. Bridges-German undergo additional training to serve people with low vision. They offer visual exercises like eccentric viewing (using other parts of the visual field besides the central part, such as peripheral vision), visual tracking (focusing the eyes on an object as it moves across the field of vision), and visual scanning (using vision to search in a systematic manner, such as top to bottom and left to right), as well as tools and technology for making daily tasks easier.
“We look at the whole person, and we determine how vision impairment has impacted [their] ability to complete specific tasks and how they navigate their environment,” she said. “Then, we modify that task or their environment to minimize or remove those limitations.” Often, OTs can help you find and use technology to help ease your daily tasks and hobbies, too. They prioritize patients’ routines, preferences, interests, and overall health needs in their recommendations.
Safer at home with occupational therapy
When Dr. Bridges-German does a home evaluation, she prefers to offer information so that patients can make the best decisions for them. But she also has general recommendations for around the house:
Bathroom. Using non-skid bath mats and treads in the tub or shower, as well as sturdy, mounted grab bars, can help reduce falls significantly.
Kitchen. Placing textured, brightly colored stickers—which you can get at a craft or hardware store—on or near key settings around your kitchen can help you use your appliances safely. “I like to put those on stoves, especially at the medium point so you know which way to go from there,” Dr. Bridges-German said. If you cook a lot, keeping a magnifier and a light in one, go-to spot will help you see recipes better. Keeping your countertops organized will also make cooking easier. Place your most-used items at waist height, lighter less-used items in higher cabinets, and heavier less-used items in lower cabinets. Use brightly colored cabinet doors and dishware to help you see and differentiate them better. Get cutting boards with contrast—a black side and/or a white side—so no matter what side you use or what you’re cutting, you can see a difference.
Floors. Throw rugs and rugs with tassels are fall risks. Low-pile wall-to-wall carpet and hardwood floors without slippery wax or shine are safer. Floor wax can also create glare, but some products can give your floors a non-skid finish without ruining hardwood. If you have varnished floors, wear non-skid socks or slippers with a rubber sole around the house.
Lighting and railings. For hallways, stairs, and other pathways throughout the house, good lighting, and sturdy railings will significantly reduce your fall risk. 60- to 100-watt bulbs are ideal. Use a yellow or a soft white tone, depending on your visual impairment. Uniform lighting will also help eliminate shadows or dark spaces. Also, be mindful of any mirror placement that creates glare or jarring light reflection. Voice commands and motion sensors can also help you manage your lights.
Do you need an OT?
If you are bumping into things in a familiar environment, like your own home, or missing whole sides on your plate at mealtime, it might be time to find an OT. “You could go to your primary care provider, optometrist, or ophthalmologist for a recommendation for a low vision OT prescription,” Dr. Bridges-German said. “A lot of times, we’re available through most hospitals, outpatient facilities, clinics, and private practices”
Most insurance plans do include low vision OT. “I know Medicaid services are state by state for OT coverage,” Dr. Bridges-German said. “Medicare has extended coverage for low vision rehab, but I know Medicare requires a referral from an optometrist or a physician.”
No matter what, Dr. Bridges-German said, “Keep getting your visual health checked. Stay up to date with that. And if you haven’t seen a low vision OT, it might be time to experience that and see what your low vision OT can do for you.”
This conversation with Dr. Bridges-German was part of a BrightFocus Chat, monthly, in-depth telephone conversations with scientists and eye experts about managing vision loss and exciting scientific breakthroughs. Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Bridges-German or read the transcript.
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