Children with low vision may benefit from the use of low vision devices, often referred to as low vision aids, to help them see more clearly. These devices include a range of items that are optical and nonoptical.

girl using magnifier to read schoolwork

Optical Devices or Aids

The two most common low vision devices are magnifiers for seeing objects close at hand (known as near viewing) and telescopes for seeing objects far away (known as distance viewing). Many children with visual impairments may not realize that fully sighted children and adults use optical devices at times. Many people use magnifiers to read directions printed in very small print or binoculars when they go to sporting events. It’s important for your child to understand that optical devices aren’t just for people with vision loss so that he doesn’t think that using these helpful devices is highly unusual and makes him different from other people.

That said, there are differences between the low vision devices your child will use and those you might buy at the store for your own use as a fully sighted person. Low vision devices for people with vision loss are prescribed by an eye care professional. Because of your child’s unique visual abilities and needs, the low vision devices he uses need to be prescribed specifically for him. People with visual impairments have particular needs that can be determined by a clinical low vision evaluation, conducted by an ophthalmologist or optometrist, which can indicate the devices able to maximize your child’s use of vision.

Optical devices or aids use lenses or prisms to magnify, reduce, or otherwise change the shape or location of an image on the eye’s retina. Optical devices may be held in the hand, rested on a base or stand, or be placed in a pair of eyeglasses. A video magnifier, also known as a closed-circuit television (CCTV), is a high-tech low vision device that electronically enlarges print or other material and projects it onto a monitor.

The cost of optical devices varies from less than a hundred dollars for some handheld magnifiers to several thousand dollars for typical video magnifiers. Your child’s school system may provide optical devices at school but not for use at home. If a low vision device has been prescribed for your child, it may be helpful to check with your insurance company to see if optical devices are covered as part of your insurance plan. If your child needs a device that is not provided for home use by the school system or covered by your insurance, you might consider approaching a community service organization to explore whether they can assist in paying for your child’s device.

Near-Vision Optical Devices

Near-vision optical devices are primarily used for tasks within arm’s reach, such as reading, writing, self-help tasks such as polishing one’s nails, and art projects such as drawing. Examples of these devices include:

  • Handheld magnifiers
  • Stand magnifiers
  • Bar magnifiers
  • Illuminated magnifiers
  • Mirror magnifiers for putting on makeup or other self-care tasks
girl using a dome magnifier

If your child is prescribed a magnifier, it is important to give him opportunities to use it, not only at school but at home and in the community. You might ask him to look up the phone number of the restaurant you’re going to and have him call for directions. Using his magnifier, he can now see the small print in the phone book. Or perhaps you might want to show your daughter how to apply makeup using a mirror with magnification. And when you are at restaurants, don’t read the menu to your child if he has the ability to read it himself. Instead, encourage him to use his magnifier.

Distance-Vision Optical Devices

Optical devices for distance viewing are also known as telescopic devices. They include handheld monoculars, clip-on monoculars, spectacle-mounted telescopes, and contact lens systems. These devices are primarily used for distance tasks beyond arm’s reach, such as reading what is on the whiteboard in a classroom, watching a demonstration in class, spotting street signs, viewing sporting events, or watching television.

There are also some electronic magnification systems that allow the user to aim a camera at an object in the distance and then view it on a screen. Most of these devices allow the user to view near information as well, similar to the way in which video magnifiers work. In the classroom, these devices allow a child to see what the teacher is writing on the chalkboard and then to see the book he is working from or the notes he is taking.

Bioptic telescopic systems (BTSs) are specially designed eyeglasses that allow a person with low vision who meets certain qualifications to drive a vehicle. For some teens, low vision driving may be possible using a BTS.

As with near-vision optical devices, it is important to encourage your child to use any prescribed distance-vision optical devices at home and school and in the community. The earlier your child is prescribed these devices and learns to use them, the more a part of his life they will become.

Nonoptical Devices

Nonoptical devices are devices or aids that may be used to help a child use his or her vision more efficiently. They typically control lighting or improve contrast. Nonoptical devices include sunglasses, hats or visors with brims, reading stands, dark-lined paper, and black felt-tipped pens.

Instruction in the Use of Optical Devices

Being prescribed optical devices is only the first step in the process of learning to use them efficiently. Training in how to use a device and continued practice are essential in helping someone feel comfortable with a device and obtaining maximum benefit from it. Training is typically part of low vision services, which include a clinical low vision examination and follow-up as well. In addition, your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor are knowledgeable about teaching children to use optical devices. If your child is prescribed a device, Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals for optical device use should be considered by his educational team. In general, your child will be more motivated to learn to use optical devices if he has functional reasons for doing so—reasons that help him do daily activities that are important or interesting to him. For example, if he is interested in cars, learning to use his monocular to spot different types of cars on the street will be motivating for him.