We Must Stop Ignoring The World’s Largest Unaddressed Disability

Yesterday was Disability Day. An important moment to highlight the many challenges that disability presents, but crucially the opportunity to better integrate people facing mental or physical disabilities into society.

While it was inspiring to see the issue in the spotlight, there was sadly one disability missing from the agenda – poor vision.

Poor vision is the world’s largest unaddressed disability. A third of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – have poor vision, but lack access to eye-tests or vision correction. The majority live in the developing world and most could be helped by a simple pair of glasses, a solution that has been around for centuries and costs as little as $1 to produce.

Aside from the impact on people’s lives, this issue costs the global economy an estimated $3 trillion a year. From access to education to road safety, the impact is huge and it is disproportionately felt. This all adds up to a huge waste of human potential across the developing world.

Seeing clearly is vital to daily life and sits right at the heart of helping the world to reduce poverty, and deliver quality education, decent work and gender equality.

Yet ironically, while good vision is fundamental to achieving the sustainable development goals, it sadly does not feature in these targets. It is high time for international leaders to wake up to this and set our sights on correcting this entirely solvable problem.

Solutions in Focus

So what needs to be done? As the world faces a tipping point in technological advancement we have the power to transform access to good sight around the world and provide long-overdue solutions to this global problem. I have spent the last 13 years focused on the many challenges and solutions to the problem of poor vision, and I am entirely convinced it can, and must, be achieved. This is why I founded Clearly, to bring glasses to the 2.5 billion people who need them, as fast as possible.

One of the key issues is to open up eye-tests to the world’s population. There are simply not enough people carrying out the simple task of testing eye-sight. State regulations mean that in many countries screening people can only be done by eye doctors with years of training.

Remote diagnostics could revolutionise the way we test eye-sight. For example, Peek Vision, a social enterprise operating in parts of Africa including Kenya and Botswana, has developed a series of smartphone apps that offer a radical and accurate new way to test vision.

However, it is also a case of being pragmatic about who tests vision, in countries where few specialists exist. Through the work of the Rwanda Government and Vision for a Nation, 100% of the country’s population now has access to primary eye-care. We did this not through using smart-phone apps, but by training over 2,700 nurses to have the basic skills needed to deliver primary eye screenings, and to make referrals where necessary.

We must also overcome the huge distribution challenges to get glasses to those who need them. In Rwanda, reductions in tax and import duties on glasses, and relaxing rules allowing glasses to be dispensed where they are needed, has led to it becoming the first low income nation to provide all its people with local access to affordable primary eye care.

Right now we are seeing initiatives springing up to hack the problem of delivering glasses in remote areas – such as Essmart, which delivers affordable reading glasses to local shops across India, supported by educational tools and materials. Additionally, there is much buzz about the potential of 3D printing to crash the cost of producing glasses.

Seeing the Road Ahead

Technology is playing a vital role in helping us to find solutions to poor vision. But I’m also certain that the key to our success will lie in the commitment of development agencies, governments and NGOS to adopting and emulating an innovative mind set.

We also need pressure from people. We are reaching a watershed in the way the world deals with disability, smashing stigma and demonstrating the amazing ways people can overcome disability to lead full and inspiring lives and make a huge contribution to society.

Set against this, we must refuse to accept that 2.5 billion people around the world cannot see clearly, JUST because they lack access a basic pair of glasses, a solution that was invented over 700 years ago. In an age where we are looking to put a human on Mars we can do better than this.

Clearly is calling on the international community to address the issue of poor vision around the world at the Commonwealth Summit in London in April next year. With the announcement by the UK’s new International Development Secretary that Britain will host its first Global Disability Summit next year, I hope that 2018 will see a wave of critical action.

The Commonwealth’s power for change is why Clearly has united with five leading eye care organisations – including The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, Sightsavers, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Peek Vision and the International Coalition for Trachoma Control – to end avoidable blindness and poor vision across the Commonwealth. With support from its leaders’ we can give the millions of people across the Commonwealth the chance to see clearly and achieve their true potential.