Chrissy Cowan Listen to Chrissy Cowan’s advice on the three things parents should know about visual efficiency skills.


My name’s Crissy Cowan. I am an Education Specialist with the Education Service Center Region 13 in Austin, Texas.

Crissy, what are the three things you want to ensure that parents know about visual efficiency skills from the expanded core curriculum?

I would like parents to know what constitutes visual efficiency, the external factors that affect visual efficiency—and that would be environmental cues— and then encouraging visual self-sufficiency in their children in the home, school, and community.

The first one—visual efficiency—is the extent to which one uses their available vision, and it’s not going to be the same for any two individuals with the same clinical measures. There are several visual abilities that affect visual efficiency, and I think the one we’re most familiar with is acuity and that’s size and clarity.

But there are other factors that affect visual efficiency. Another one is visual fields, and that’s going to be what you can see to the side, what you see to the top, and what you see underneath.

And then eye movements, your ability to move your eyes to follow a target, for example. And then, how the brain interprets information and then light and color reception.

So, my advice to parents is, now that we have the Internet, the best thing to do when you get that diagnosis from the eye doctor is to Google your child’s etiology or diagnosis. Wikipedia and things like that on the Internet will give you a lot of information about what that etiology is. Unfortunately the Internet sites, though, will not give you what the effects of that particular diagnosis are, and remember, they’re gonna be different for different kids and different people.

There is a chart in a book called Low Vision: a Resource Guide with Adaptations for Students with Visual Impairments by Nancy Levack that’s available from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Press. There’s a chart in there called “Specific Eye Conditions and Diseases with Corresponding Adaptations.” And that is a really good place to start to figure out—let’s say if your child has oculocutaneous albinism. You can find that on the chart, and it will give you what the implications are (most likely) for that particular etiology.

The functional vision evaluation and learning media assessment report done by a teacher of the visually impaired or TVI will give you more information on how your child uses his vision even as young as with infancy. So that’s another good place to start because the TVI—or in some cases the O&M instructor—will be looking at how your child uses their vision within the school setting, home, and community. They should be able to share that information with you.

There are also external factors that are a piece of that visual efficiency. And that’s the cues we get from the environment that helps us put together visual information. And those would be color, contrast, time, space, and illumination.

Color gives us information that sometimes can be associated with safety—so for example, when you see a piece of meat that has turned gray in the grocery store, and it’s behind packaging, you can’t really smell it, but if you look at it, you know not to eat it. It might be even dangerous to eat. There are plants we avoid because of their color—berries. We use color in school for maps and graphs in particular. And then in social settings, clothing—matching clothing. So color gives us information.

Contrast is an external factor, and contrast is going be the difference between the object viewed and its background and can actually be more problematic than acuity for many individuals. When adults are surveyed about what is giving them the biggest problem, say when they read magazines, the contrast between the print and the background can be really a problem—more so than the print size.

Another external factor would be time—and time refers to the amount of time given or needed to distinguish a visual target. So think in terms of taking longer to read or time limits to view when driving—how quickly those things come at you. Moving through space. Even completing assignments or things that happen in a flash. So when the time element is reduced for someone who has a visual impairment or looking at their visual efficiency, it can pose a problem.

Space is the amount of distance between the viewer and the target; when you get that number from the eye doctor, 20-20, 20-100, or whatever, that’s a space figure. The top number means what the—let me see if I can get this straight—what the typical eye can see at 20 feet. If your child has 20-80, your child is seeing at 20 feet what the typical eye can see at 80 ft. That’s what doctors use to refer to your child’s acuity.

Younger children appear to improve in visual functioning or efficiency once they begin to crawl—and that’s a factor of space. They’re now able to get up and go explore their world. And it looks like their vision improves when they get to be around 2-3 years old if they are a mobile child. And that means crawling, not necessarily walking. They see something across the room—you’ve got that distance. They can’t recognize it. They crawl to it. They now know it’s the TV remote control, for example, and now when they’re back away from it, and they see that gray shape, they know what it is—and so their visual efficiency is increasing and improving.

So it’s real important to allow your child the freedom to explore, starting with safe environments in the home. Classrooms, stores, sporting events, all have large spaces that must be negotiated for learning and visual processing to take place.

And then illumination is another factor in the environment that affects visual efficiency, and it’s the amount of light needed to see best. Some students do better in low lighting, while others need more. And there are different etiologies that are going to affect the way that that child is performing in different lighting situations.

For example, kids, again, with albinism or cataracts have difficulty with light or lighted things like the overhead projector, the TV set, the computer screen—and so those lighting kinds of products need to be controlled a little bit. External factors can sometimes be altered depending on the setting. Students can learn to recognize and communicate their preferences or the conditions under which they have optimal visual performance.

And that brings me to my third point, which is encouraging visual self-sufficiency in your child in the home, school, and community. Nobody knows better than the child what they are seeing. We can make observations of how they perform and guess at what they’re seeing, but only the child knows the best how they are seeing things. And so if we don’t teach them how to communicate what their needs are, they’re just not going to be as efficient as a child or a person who does advocate for themselves.