READER REQUEST: SIGHTLESS SCENE

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SIGHTLESS SCENE

To the Editors of American Demographics:

I met a guy at a party this past weekend who is developing a product for the blind. He's looking for data on how many blind people there are, how old they are and where they live. Do you have any information that may help him?

Nick “Keeper� Catran-Whitney

Woodland Hills, Calif.

Dear Nick:

Some of the data about blind people that your friend seeks is readily available; some is harder to come by. The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) collects information from various public sources about Americans who have difficulty seeing. According to AFB data, there are about 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States. Roughly 4 percent of the national population, this figure includes 1.3 million whom government health bureaus would designate as legally blind, meaning they have “measured visual acuity of 20/200 in the better eye with best correction, or visual field of 20 degrees or less.� The remaining 8.7 million have difficulty seeing even with the best corrective aids.

As you might expect, there is a correlation between visual impairment or blindness and age. However, it's only at age 80 that this correlation becomes statistically significant. According to National Center for Health Statistics data compiled by the AFB in 1998, the incidence of visual impairment among people ages 18 to 49 hardly differs from that of people in their 50s: The rates are 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively. A scant 5 percent of sixtysomethings, and 8 percent of septuagenarians, are either blind or have impaired vision. But as seniors leave their 70s and enter their 80s, the incidence of visual impairment more than doubles, to 17 percent. Among those who are 90 or older, the rate of blindness or visual impairment reaches nearly 30 percent.

It is harder to find satisfactory data that shows where blind people live. Corinne Kirchner, director of Policy Research and Program Evaluation at the American Foundation for the Blind, pointed me toward research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in the early '90s. The bureau's report estimates the number and percentage of individuals, age 16 and older, in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., who have difficulty seeing or are completely unable to see words and letters in newspaper print (a slightly different standard from that used by the AFB). The data shows that as of 1990 (the most recent year covered in the report), Mississippi led the nation, with an estimated 7.7 percent of its population reporting difficulty seeing. The U.S. average at the time was 5.2 percent — a rate believed to be constant. Other states with a greater-than-average share of visually impaired residents include Arkansas (7.5 percent), West Virginia (7.5 percent), Alabama (7.2 percent) and Florida (7.1 percent).

Kirchner also observes that the nation's large cities tend to attract the blind. Dense urban areas with developed public transportation systems, she says, act as a magnet for those who can't see but who still want to get out of the house.

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