Is Low Vision Driving an Option?
Chelsea is an active 16-year-old high school junior who’s treasurer of her class. She also volunteers at the local animal shelter. She was born with albinism; her corrected visual acuity is 20/200 in both eyes, and she has near-normal visual fields. Even before she started high school, she and her orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor talked about the possibility that she might be able to get a driver’s license.
Last year Chelsea and her parents traveled 200 miles to see an optometrist who specializes in working with people who have low vision. That was the first time she had a chance to try a bioptic telescope. She was amazed when she looked through the telescope lens and could read the small print on a poster across the room! Now she has a pair of bioptics and is working with a driving school instructor to learn how to use them efficiently and safely.
What Are Bioptics?
Bioptics are specially designed eyeglasses that contain carrier lenses, in one’s regular distance prescription, which have been modified to “carry” a miniature telescope. Not everyone with low vision can use them. The telescope enables users to see objects in the distance by tilting their heads slightly downward to switch from the view through their regular eyeglass lenses to a magnified view through the telescope. The telescope is used for less than five percent of driving time and only for a few seconds at a time.
If your teen’s visual acuity is between 20/50 and 20/200 and she has near-normal visual fields, she may be able to learn to drive using bioptics—also referred to as a bioptic telescopic system (BTS). The first step is to consult an ophthalmologist or optometrist who is a specialist in low vision. If it’s confirmed that her vision is sufficient for low vision driving, she’ll need a lot of instruction and practice to learn how to become a safe driver using this special device.
The following suggestions can help prepare your child to be a low vision driver.
- Have your child contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to learn about the requirements in your state for low vision driving.
- If your teen uses a handheld telescope or monocular, encourage her to use it more often—for example, when she’s on her way to school or out shopping—to read signs at a distance or watch out for oncoming traffic. The more skilled and familiar she is with a handheld telescope, the easier it will be for her to learn to use a bioptic telescopic system.
- Talk with your child’s O&M instructor to get ideas on how you can help her become a more aware traveler. The O&M instructor may be able to suggest ways for her to sharpen concepts related to travel, such as blocks, cross streets, traffic flow, types of intersections, and highway driving versus local travel.
- When you or another adult are driving, have your child sit behind the driver and describe what she’s seeing. Help her become more aware of how a driver needs to shift perspective to know at every moment what’s happening in front of the car, far ahead, on either side, and behind.
- Encourage your teenager to talk with other low vision drivers about how they learned to use bioptics and perhaps get some helpful tips that a driver with normal vision wouldn’t necessarily think of. You may be able to locate a low vision driver by contacting a local service provider for individuals who are blind or have low vision.
Many young people are eager to overcome the limitations of low vision and become licensed drivers. It takes dedication to develop the skills needed to accomplish that. Work with other members of your child’s educational team to help her explore and prepare for driving. If, in the end, she decides the demands of low vision driving are too hard, she may still benefit from her experiences. The skills and concepts she learns while practicing are likely to make her a more knowledgeable and confident traveler.
You can read more about transportation options for those with visual impairments by browsing VisoinAware’s section on transportation.