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Clear Vision: How Sightgeist is battling blindness in developing countries

Clear Vision: How Sightgeist is battling blindness in developing countries
29 Mar
2019
Event at the Science Museum aims to highlight the unaddressed disability of poor vision

Poverty can be defined in many ways. We lean towards the obvious areas of hunger, clothing and other basic necessities one needs in order to live. But, according to James Chen, the founder of Clearly, a global initiative to improve access to glasses, there’s something the world has forgotten. We have forgotten the people left behind by the largest unnoticed disability in the world: poor vision. An incomprehensible 2.5 billion people all over the world go without glasses and the eye care that they need.

Sightgeist, held at the Science Museum in London on the 28 March, addressed this colossal problem in a way that inspired, related, and presented solutions not just in an understandable way, but by proposing realistic paths.

James Chen, founder of ClearlyJames Chen, founder of Clearly

Hosted by Chen, Sightgeist presented a variety of visionary speakers that worked to present different and forward-thinking solutions in their talks. Clearly’s voice in Sightgeist showed us the children in Rwanda that can’t see the blackboard. The tea garden workers in Assam that can’t properly sort the leaves. The elderly people all over the world that accept preventable blindness as a part of life.

Glasses are a necessity in the West that people forget to acknowledge, despite having been invented 700 years ago. But why, if they were invented so long ago, are people still suffering from debilitating vision problems? How do we diagnose an eye problem when 99 per cent of optometrists live outside low-income countries? How do we distribute glasses when most of the 2.5 billion people who need them are in hard to reach and underdeveloped countries? How do people living in poverty afford glasses that are often sold for well over a month’s income? And how do we destroy the stigma related to specs, to eliminate the notion that glasses imply weakness or a distraction from one's natural looks? These are all the questions Sightgeist is attempting to answer, using the theme of ‘four Ds’: Diagnosis, distribution, dollars and demand.

‘Everyone should be able to get a pair of glasses when they need them, wherever they are, no matter how rich or poor,’ said Chen. ‘I tried to identify the main obstacles standing in the way of getting glasses to everyone. Poor vision has a devastating impact on quality of life: children can't see the blackboard, workers can't reach their full potential, and countless lives are put at risk as drivers get behind the wheel without being able to see properly.’

shutterstock 490141558

In rural countries where eye doctors are hard to come by, the issue lies in diagnosis. Most blindness that befalls people living in underdeveloped countries is preventable, with a simple diagnosis by a health care professional. In the modern world, technology takes over aspects of our lives in positive and negative ways. But Sightgeist questioned how we can use technology in a way that will reduce the crisis.

William Mapham is the founder and CEO of Vula, an app that works to diagnose health issues quickly, effectively and professionally, allowing doctors to reach patients in a way that they never could before.

Mapham said: ‘I conceived the idea for the app while working at the Vula Emehlo Eye Clinic in rural Swaziland. I experienced first-hand the difficulties faced by rural health workers when they need specialist advice. The app was initially only for ophthalmology referrals, but it quickly became clear that the functionality provided by Vula was needed on a wider scale.’

Now used by 20 types of health specialists in many different countries, Vula helped improve ophthalmology treatments by including the expertise of medical professionals working on other areas, such as HIV workers in African nations.

Despite Vula being a solution to diagnosing poor eyesight in countries without enough trained doctors, what happens after you have diagnosed a need for glasses? In places such as Rwanda and Mongolia, how are they going to be delivered to locations where distributors can seldom reach?

William Mapham, founder of VulaWilliam Mapham, founder of Vula

An estimated four billion people in underdeveloped countries do not have an address, making them invisible to maps. While Western minds instantly go to Google as an immediate solution for navigation, empty spaces on the map present a huge problem for distribution.

Not only do these unmapped individuals struggle to open bank accounts, register a birth or access electricity or water supplies, but distributors can’t get vital glasses to those in need. All of this could change, however, with What3words, a revolutionary idea created by Chris Sheldrick in order to tackle this problem.

Sheldrick said: ‘We divided up the world into three-metre squares. And we found there were enough combinations of three dictionary words that we could name all of them, uniquely with just three words. In Mongolia, the national post service has adopted our system and is now delivering to many people’s houses for the first time.’

What3words is making places in the middle of nowhere, somewhere. The new Lonely Planet guide for Mongolia has adopted What3words into its writing, and Mercedes Benz has even incorporated it into its navigational system. With the opportunity for mail to be delivered to houses in hard-to-reach countries for the very first time, worldwide distribution is becoming possible.

Chris Sheldrick, what3wordsChris Sheldrick, what3words

Having illustrated ways to diagnose and distribute, Sightgeist moved on to the one very real issue that perhaps presents the biggest problem for people living in poverty: dollars. Having asked the audience to raise their hands if they spend over £50 on glasses, VisionSpring president, Ella Gudwin raised the question as to how people in poverty can buy glasses.

VisionSpring focuses on the income potential of these people and questions how poor eyesight can hinder their ability to work. With a pair of glasses, it is proven that for many workers in third-world countries, this can increase their productivity by 35 per cent.

VisionSpring launched a campaign where it aims to get glasses to people with low incomes, selling glasses to people for as little as $1.50.

Following VisionSpring’s Gudwin, was Lowri Moore, a nine-year-old who has worn glasses since she was aged one. Moore was invited by Sightgeist to address demand, talking about a letter she sent to the CEO of Disney, Robert Iger. Moore, who was inspired by Disney princesses growing up, wrote to Iger asking why there were no Disney princesses who wore glasses. Moore explained that this made youngsters feel as though they couldn’t be as beautiful as princesses, and asked why most glasses-wearing characters were dubbed as ‘geeks’.

Lowri Moore being asked about glasses stigmaLowri Moore being asked about glasses stigma

Moore said: ‘I wanted to write the letter to make a difference. I don't want other girls to think the way I did. When I was younger, I would take my glasses off to play princesses with my sisters, even though I really can't see without them.’

While this was a sweet interlude to the revolutionary ideas posed by the older entrepreneurs, it does beg the question as to why glasses have adopted such stigma. One of Sightgeist’s other missions is to address the usage of glasses among younger generations who are often loathe to adopt them. The event closed by introducing an idea around this bigger picture: if Einstein hadn’t had his glasses, would the world be the same? If Steve Jobs hadn’t had his glasses, would the world have all of our technological advances?

Sightgeist introduced many inspiring visionaries who have proposed ideas on how to make the world a better place for people with poor vision. And this, despite the central theme around glasses, showed us that the point is not just to physically be able to see clearly, rather, it is about having a wider vision.

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