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Clear vision is every schoolchild’s right

An expanded vision in Indiana can help more Hoosier school children see clearly.

As the school year begins, a new state law requires vision screening for all fifth graders. Indiana previously required vision exams in either kindergarten or first grade, followed by third grade and then again in eighth grade.

According to the American Optometric Association, 80 percent of a child’s learning occurs through their eyes, and 25 percent of school-aged children have vision problems.

The AOA reports that students without healthy eyesight will avoid reading and other assignments. School work that is attempted will result in less comprehension and learning. Children with undetected vision problems also can develop a short attention span, leading to a misdiagnosis about behavior.

According to the AOA, “Undetected and untreated vision problems can elicit some of the very same signs and symptoms commonly attributed to ADHD. Due to these similarities, some children may be mislabeled as having ADHD when, in fact, they have an undetected vision problem.”

For these reasons the AOA recommends consistent vision testing for children. “The longer a vision problem goes undiagnosed and untreated, the more a child’s brain learns to accommodate the vision problem. Early detection and treatment provide the very best opportunity to correct vision problems, so your child can learn to see clearly.”

Jean Gajano, executive director of New Eyes, a nonprofit that provides vision assistance to low-income students, said eye exams are needed because children often do not realize they have vision problems and will not speak up for themselves. Gajano had a revelation in third grade when a vision screening led to a pair of glasses.

“The first time I had that pair of glasses, it was – so to speak – eye opening,” Gajano remembered. “You do not understand what you are not seeing. Kids don’t speak up because they don’t know what they are missing.”

Jolene Bracale, a former school nurse who now serves as program coordinator for student health services at the Indiana Department of Education, added, “One time I screened a kindergartner and found that she had double vision, and she didn’t understand that not all children see two of everything.”

Vision exams at schools can be conducted by eye doctors, school nurses and by community health organizations. Indiana Optometry, the statewide association of optometrists, can help schools find local eye doctors who will donate this service ( www.ioa.org).

Results of the vision screening are sent home to parents with a list of local eye-care providers. For low-income families, Hoosier Healthwise – Indiana’s health insurance program for low-income youth – pays for vision care, and other school and community resources can help parents who are unable to pay for glasses.

The list includes eye doctors who will provide free glasses; the local education foundation, PTA or PTO that has raised money to pay for glasses; and the local Lions’ Club, which nationally started providing vision assistance to children in 1925 following a speech by Helen Keller at the club’s national convention. Find your local Lion’s Club at: directory.lionsclubs.org.

Parents should not rely solely on their local school to ensure healthy eyesight for their children. According to the AOA, warning signs of poor vision include sitting too close to the television, squinting, frequent eye rubbing and sensitivity to light. In addition, parents should watch if their children experience frequent blinking or frequent headaches, hold reading materials too close to their face or often lose their place when reading.

All infants between the ages of 6 months and 12 months, regardless of family income, can receive free vision screening through the AOA’s InfantSEE program (allaboutvision.com/eye-doctor). The AOA recommends that the next eye exam occur at age 3. This examination can be conducted by a pediatrician, who then can refer the child, if necessary, to an eye doctor.

Gajano reminds us that the stakes are high. “Being able to see clearly is a basic human right,” she said. “If you don’t have healthy eyesight, you cannot be all you can be. You cannot focus on everything you need to focus on. You cannot learn everything you need to learn. The experiences you have are dulled because you do not have that clear vision.”

Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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