Delivering an equal right to sight to children in special schools (guest post)

Here Donna O’Brien, of the charity SeeAbility, talks about its groundbreaking work with a number of special schools, that led to the partnership getting the nasen Axcis sponsored award for provision of year, 2019!

SeeAbility is a national charity and we have been working for a number of years to help people with learning disabilities look after their eyesight. We were absolutely thrilled when we heard that our sight testing project, with a number of special schools, had won this prestigious award.

For the past six years we have funded a dedicated clinical team, providing sight tests and examining children’s vision, as well as dispensing and fitting glasses and providing reports to teachers on what children can see.

Currently we are working with the following schools in the London area: Perseid School, Village School, Moorcroft School, Grangewood School, Willow Dene School, Charlton Park Academy and RNIB Sunshine House, who have opened their doors and put their faith in us to support their pupils with their eye care. It’s been a fantastic experience and they rightly share the plaudits for the award!

Why sight testing?

We’re passionate about eye care for children with special educational needs and it is great to have the opportunity not just to blog about what our project does, but also to talk about sight problems in children with learning disabilities and autism. It is one of those areas of life where it might not be obvious there is anything amiss.

In fact there is a large body of evidence that children with learning disabilities are significantly more likely (28 times in fact) to experience eye and vision problems than members of the general childhood population. The more severe or profound a person’s learning disability, the higher that risk becomes. In our work we have found nearly half of children in special schools have a vision problem, and a third need glasses. Much of this was unknown until we visited the schools.

A full sight test examines not just the way the eyes focus but how they move, and check the health of the eyes. These tests don’t just provide the chance to understand what a child can see, but also provide a chance to prevent avoidable sight loss, even blindness if something serious is spotted early enough.  

That is why every child has a right to a (free) NHS sight test annually, with the expectation that parents will head to their nearest high street optician for their test. But for children with learning disabilities and autism, accessing those checks can be a real problem. In fact in our research we’ve found that 44% of the children we see have never had a sight test. We found children with autism were the least likely to have had a regular sight test.

For other children we know that routine eye care is actually going to the hospital eye clinic, which although necessary, might be the busiest and perhaps not the most convenient place for children with autism or profound or multiple learning disabilities to attend.

Happily, many of the children we have seen have vision problems which are easily treatable or can be completely or partly resolved with glasses. By fitting and supplying the glasses in school it means the children get them quickly and are supported to use them effectively. The familiarity of the school means there are children now receiving eye care who no one thought it would be possible to test, particularly given the perception that you must be able to read or sit still to have a full eye examination.

For example we have followed a young man called Nathaniel (pictured below, right, with our dispensing optician Mitch) since we first gave him a sight test at age 14 and found him so shortsighted that without glasses he would qualify as severely sight impaired. Now with his glasses he has 20:20 vision, he no longer shows behaviour that challenges and is leaving school for college this summer, continuing to learn and fulfil his potential.

What’s next?

Over 3500 sight tests later, and with over 1700 pairs of glasses dispensed, we’ve been sharing our findings far and wide to make the case for the NHS to fund eye examinations and glasses dispensing in all special schools in England – and in 2020 this should start to become a reality! We know what impressed the judges was how the project has shown how a model of care could be rolled out nationally to 120,000 children in these settings. The support of parents and teachers has also been fundamental.

Tina Harvey, Perseid School Head Teacher (pictured second from right at the start of this blog), has worked with us since 2013 as Perseid was the first school to partner with us: 

“The difference the project has made to our children is absolutely profound – especially for the children who had previously never been tested, and were found to need glasses. Many were living life in a total blur before. Now they are happier, more able to learn, feel less frustrated and have higher self esteem. It’s so exciting to know that all special schools will soon get the same opportunity as us.”

We’ll be working hard to ensure a new NHS programme follows the pioneering work at Perseid, and really benefits schools and pupils in the same way. It will be exciting to see what the NHS has planned. You can read more about the whole project at www.seeability.org/achangeinsight.

In the meantime if you want to understand more about eye care and vision, why not read our mini guide with nasen Understanding the eye care needs of children with SEN and disabilities. It’s free to download so do take a look! http://www.nasen.org.uk/miniguides/

For more information on this work, contact Donna O’Brien, SeeAbility at dobrien@seeability.org or 01372 755063

If you’re looking for a SEND teaching or support job in England or Wales, why not register with Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists? Or perhaps you need to recruit staff for your school or provision? If so, why not take a look at the Axcis Website, or get in touch today to find out how we can help?

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