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As a highly experienced vision screener who has tested more than 50,000 children over the past 10 years for Florida’s VisionQuest, Nancy Jeppesen has seen the real impact on children who have a vision problem, but were not identified.
“I believe vision issues among children is a silent epidemic,” said Jeppesen, who founded Florida’s VisionQuest in 1994. “These kids don’t know they can’t see. Most of them were born that way. When we go into a Title I school that is typically made up of minority students from high poverty circumstances, we have seen as much as 43 percent of the school population requiring eye glasses. And this is at the elementary school level.
“If these children had a cold or the flu or even a tooth ache, there would be a public outcry that 43 percent of them need something and they’re not getting it taken care of immediately.”
Jeppesen is a mother of five who watched one of her own children struggle in fifth grade because she had not been correctly identified with a vision issue after taking the eye chart test in third grade. That experience led Jeppesen to found a non-profit organization, Florida VisionQuest, which began working with schools in Florida to provide vision screenings, eye exams and eye glasses to children. Jeppesen says parents may not realize the correlation between vision problems and academic success.
“Parents rely on vision screenings in the schools to find out if their children have a vision problem,” said Jeppesen, who points out that many children are passing the eye chart exam, but still have a vision issue. “You have parents dismissing vision as the reason their child is having a problem in school, when in fact that may be the only reason.”
The longtime vision health expert has witnessed the real life consequences that develop from children who can’t see in a classroom.
“Typically the child who has an unidentified vision problem will sit in class and fail,” said Jeppesen. “They will check out of school mentally, because they can’t see, they can’t participate, they can’t compete. That child will think they are stupid which hurts their self-esteem.” Given that set of circumstances, many of those children will feel left out and start looking at other options.
“Those children will try to figure out some other way to be successful in life and that might be on the street, it might be in gangs, whatever it may be, but the sad part is we have lost those children in the school system,” said Jeppesen. “I had a fifth grader once who said he could never figure out why the teacher spent so much time writing on the chalkboard when no-one can see it. That is tragic!”
The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that vision disability is the single most prevalent disabling condition among children. Approximately 80 percent of what children learn in their early school years is visual, so if they can’t see a teacher’s writing on the blackboard, they will struggle.
Today, of all school-age children across America, 25 percent suffer from a vision problem, that is 12.5 million children who may be unable to see the blackboard or read their textbooks. Research shows that of the children in the 9 to 15 year-old age group only 10 percent of those who needed glasses actually had them.
Changing the Status Quo
The 149 year-old eye chart has been the standard of vision screening, which has resulted in so many children going unidentified. However, a revolutionary new device called Spot has recently been introduced and is drastically changing vision screening in America.
“Up until now, it has been challenging to identify all children who have a vision issue,” said Jeppesen. “For the first time, we now have a vision screening tool, Spot, which can accurately identify all of the children with vision problems. Now we can help those children. That is so exciting for all of us out there screening children!”
For Jeppesen, Spot is so revolutionary that she believes it is helping to save the lives of those children who otherwise would have no chance of succeeding in school.
“I feel like every day we save not only one child’s life, but we are helping to save 10 or 20 or even 30 lives each day, because we are identifying kids who didn’t know they had a vision problem,” said Jeppesen, who relies on only seven employees and a network of 350 volunteers including eye care specialists to help with screenings and follow-up care throughout Florida. “What’s really exciting is when you put glasses on that little kid’s face and all of a sudden they can see. We help to open up their entire world.”