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Vision Loss Affects Our Ability to Communicate

By Danielle Myers-Rickard

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Did you know that by age 70, fewer than 30 percent of elderly people have 20/20 vision?

Normal age-related visual impairments such as macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma can impact day-to-day functioning. They can affect our ability to drive, read prescription bottles, safely maneuver an uneven sidewalk, or recognize a friend at church.

Visual impairments can also affect our ability to communicate effectively with others. We observe our partners to see if they “get” what we are saying when we talk to them. Consider the visual clues that we look for during a conversation:

  • Facial cues, which indicate mood or emotion
  • Hand gestures, which can indicate size or direction
  • Turn-taking cues, including raised eyebrows
  • Feedback, such as head nodding

These types of non-verbal messages may be lost or misunderstood by people with poor vision. Both people in the conversation are then prone to misinterpretation. Imagine not being able to see someone roll his eyes when making a sarcastic remark. You might think that he is rude and he might think that you don’t have a sense of humor!

Here are some simple things you can do when talking to someone who has visual impairments:

  1. Identify yourself when going to visit. “Hi Grandma. It’s me, Mary.”
  2. Describe what you mean with words in addition to hand gestures. “The fish was two feet long.”
  3. Sit in a well-lit area, but avoid sitting directly in front of bright windows or standing in doorways. This “backlighting” causes a silhouette effect and people cannot see your face clearly.


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