Blindness and visual impairment

This page answers some common questions about blindness and visual impairment.

It includes links to more detailed information on key aspects of visual impairment. Find out more about causes of visual impairment, eye tests, certificates of visual impairment, vision aids and benefits. 

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What is visual impairment? 

The term “visual impairment” is used to describe sight loss that cannot be corrected using glasses or contact lenses.  

What is blindness?

The word “blindness” is commonly used to describe total, or near-total sight loss.

What causes visual impairment?

There are many possible causes of visual impairment or blindness. 

The leading cause of visual impairment in adults is age-related macular degeneration.  

The retina is a thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the inside of eye. At the centre of the retina is the “macula”, a small oval-shaped area that contains all the cells that help us see well. With age, the macula wears out.  

Other significant causes of sight loss in adults are: 

  • Glaucoma –  a condition where the optic nerve is damaged due to increased pressure. That’s the nerve that connects your eye to your brain. 
  • Cataracts – this is when the lens of your eye becomes cloudy. 
  • Diabetic retinopathy – this is a complication of diabetes that affects your vision. It causes damage to blood vessels in your retina. 
  • Uncorrected refractive errors – a type of vision problem that makes it hard to see clearly. These happen when the shape of your eye keeps light from focusing correctly on your retina. 
  • Corneal opacity – eye problems that lead to scarring or clouding of the cornea, your eye’s clear protective outer layer. 
  • Trachoma – an eye disease caused by a bacterial infection. 
  • Hemianopia – a stroke-related eye condition that causes the loss of half your field of vision. 

Causes of visual impairment in children

Visual impairment in children can be caused by a number of conditions and syndromes, including cataracts, aniridia, coloboma, retinitis pigmentosa, Usher syndrome and more. 

Find out more about the most common conditions from the Royal Society for Blind Children.

Find out more about Usher syndrome. 

Signs of visual impairment

  • Blurred vision.  
  • Pain in the eye(s) with or without discharge. 
  • Sensitivity to light. 
  • Double vision. 
  • Flashes of light in your vision. 
  • Disturbances in your vision.  
  • New floating bits in your vision. 

Signs of visual impairment in children

  • Squinting or moving closer to see things.  
  • Discharge from the eyes. 
  • Redness around the eyes. 
  • Rubbing and poking their eyes. 
  • Sensitivity to light, turning away from light sources or avoiding certain environments (for example, not wanting to go outside when it’s sunny). 
  • Bumping into things, tripping over and having trouble judging depth. 
  • Difficulty seeing or moving around when it’s dark. 
  • Adopting unusual postures when watching or looking at things. 

Worried about your sight?  

It’s best to make an appointment with your optician for an initial check-up.  

If necessary, they’ll refer you to an eye specialist – an ophthalmologist. 

If your vision has deteriorated very suddenly, you should seek urgent medical help.  

How do I get a certificate of visual impairment? 

If your vision has deteriorated to a certain level, you might want to get a certificate of visual impairment. Usually, if you’re eligible for this, your eyecare professional will talk to you about it.  

Depending on how severe your vision loss is, you’ll either be registered as: 

  • Sight impaired – previously “partially sighted”. 
  • Severely sight impaired – previously “blind”. 

What is a certificate of visual impairment?

Getting a certificate simply means being on your local authority’s social service’s register of people who are either sight impaired (SI) or severely sight impaired (SSI).  

It’s voluntary and completely confidential. Your details won’t be shared. 

Getting your certificate 

Your eye specialist will determine whether you meet the criteria to register as sight impaired or severely sight impaired.  

If you do, this is what will happen:  

  1. If your consultant ophthalmologist decides that you can be certified, they’ll complete a certificate with the results of your eye exam and information about your circumstances.  
  2. After receiving a copy of your certificate, your local authority’s social services team should contact you. 

They’ll ask if you want to be included on its register of blind and partially sighted people.  

If you say you do, then you become registered. 

Your local council will often give you a registration card that proves your registration status.  

If you choose not to be registered, you can still get support from social services to help you remain independent. 

Find out more about the criteria for certification from the RNIB. 

Is being blind a disability? 

If you’re blind or visually impaired, it is up to you whether or not you identify as disabled. 

However, under the Equality Act 2010, if you’re registered with your local authority as either sight impaired or severely sight impaired, you automatically meet the act’s definition of a disabled person. 

This act is in place to make sure that disabled people have equal access and opportunity without discrimination. 

Find out more sight loss and the Equality Act 2010.

At Sense, we support the social model of disability – the understanding that disability is something that is created by society.  

This is because disabled people face barriers that stop them from taking part in society in the same way as non-disabled people. 

Find out more about the social model of disability.

How many blind people are there in the UK? 

In the UK, more than two million people are living with sight loss. Of these, around 340,000 are registered as sight impaired or severely sight impaired. 

Information and support for coping with sight loss 

If you or your child have just been diagnosed with sight loss, it can be a scary time. Everyone’s situation is different. 

If you have questions about symptoms or a diagnosis, or need support in other ways, you can contact Sense’s information and advice service

Vision aids 

There are many ways to make your everyday life easier if you have a visual impairment. These include lighting, traditional hand-held devices and more high-tech solutions. 

Find out more about assistive technology for people with sight loss.

What benefits can I claim if I’m visually impaired? 

If you have a certificate of visual impairment, it can help you to get a range of benefits. 

These may include: 

  •  Benefits to help with any costs relating to your disability or illness. 
  • A reduction in the TV licence fee. 
  • Help with NHS costs. 
  • Help with council tax and tax allowances. 
  • Reduced fees on public transport. 
  • Parking concessions. 

To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, please visit our Benefits and money section.

Support from Sense

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This content was last reviewed in October 2022. We’ll review it again in 2024.