Self-Adjusting Glasses Prove Visionary for World’s Poor

December 16, 2009

Our view of the world and our possibilities are shaped by our ability to see what’s before us – literally and figuratively. Yet, the World Health Organization estimates that 153 million people live in a blurred world – at substantial cost to themselves and their communities.

The problem is uncorrected refractive error — shortsightedness or farsightedness — and it is quite widespread. In the developed world alone, some 60 to 70 percent of the population need eyeglasses.

Global Vision 2020 executive director Kevin White, a former marine, is on a mission to distribute liquid eyeglasses invented by Oxford atomic physicist Joshua Silver. The spectacles can be fitted to correct an individual’s eyesight within seconds.

“It takes eight years to create an ophthalmologist and that’s after a high school degree,” said White emphasizing a basic obstacle to getting enough specialists to attend to the millions in the developing world who need eye care. The developed world has one ophthalmologist per eight thousand individuals, while the developing world has one ophthalmologist per one million. The consequences can be tragic. White estimates that uncorrected vision leads as many as six persons per 100,000 in the developing world to die in traffic accidents.

A Maryland native, White recently distributed 500 eyeglasses in four days to his state’s sister city of Monrovia, Liberia. “The biggest barrier to distributing the glasses is distribution,” says White, who taps existing networks such as churches and NGOs to train volunteers to assist clients with outfitting themselves with the liquid eyeglasses. Using these existing networks also helps keep costs down. The glasses sell for about $19 dollars per pair.

In Monrovia, Creative Associates International, a supporter of public-private alliances, joined forces with White, providing staff and facilities for training and distribution of the glasses. Creative was implementing the USAID-funded Accelerated Learning Program PLUS, which provided six years of primary schooling to more than 55,000 youth forced out of schools during Liberia’s civil war. ALP PLUS Chief of Party, Simon James facilitated the partnership with Global Vision 2020. “If we can eliminate refractive error as a reason why kids are not doing well in school, it will have an immediate impact on productivity as kids will be less likely to drop-out,” says White.

White described the transformation in the life of a 57-year old grandmother from Rwanda whose world was a blur. White says she became a burden to her family as she could not clean the rice for the daily meal, or sew to contribute to the family’s income. The day she got her eyeglasses she cried. “She could recognize people, places and could cook and sew again, making her a contributing member of the family,” said White.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the mystic and Jesuit priest once said, “The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.” He meant of course the inner eye, but for those who have just recovered their sight with liquid spectacles, it’s literally a life-changing event.

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