Are you focused on the important things in your life?
When you’ve had a moment to process that question, you might think about meeting someone special, or a great job interview, or perhaps even something you read or heard recently that changed the way you see the world in some way.
Now try to imagine that as you’re connecting with people, or places, everything in front of you is blurred. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with you – perhaps it’s just tiredness, but it’s increasingly difficult to focus. In fact, you’re as preoccupied with squinting as you are engaging with the task. It’s moments like this when we realise that our ability to connect with people and our environment is so dependent on our sight. Similar situations can be found across the senses – imagine that you’re trying to learn something new, but you can’t quite catch what the teacher is saying? Most of us have been there once in a while, and usually this is OK. However what is not OK is when these problems persist, unaddressed, sometimes for months or years. This is surprisingly common.
For example, in a recent study, Sightsavers found that almost 80 per cent of drivers surveyed who are legally required to wear glasses or contact lenses, don’t. Despite it being illegal, more than a third said this happens on most days they are driving.
Just 22 per cent of people required to wear glasses or contact lenses said they always wear them. It’s almost as if we have finally got the message that we need to get our eyes checked, but we’re not wearing glasses or contact lenses at critical moments. Similarly, 6.7 million people in the UK could benefit from hearing aids, but only two million use them. Undetected hearing loss in adulthood has been linked to loneliness and depression.
Why are we refusing to look after ourselves and set ourselves up for success? I suspect it’s because we don’t often make the link between the qualities of our senses with our ability to take part fully in everyday life. Perhaps the changes we experience in our bodies can be so slow that we don’t realise the impact they are having.
Studies have shown that children who are healthy learn better in school. Researchers have known this for years, yet health and wellbeing are still not a top priority in most schools. One example – more than 30 million primary and lower-secondary school age children with disabilities in developing countries are estimated to be out of school. Many of them aren’t able to attend because of common health problems, such as worm infection, visual impairment and poor nutrition.
Take for example, 10-year-old Sanaka, a girl we worked with in 2011, who was attending a local school in Siem Reap, one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. Sanaka was painfully shy and didn’t seem to be absorbing information. She was consistently at the bottom of the class and her teacher had noticed that she didn’t interact with the other children. No one knew what the problem was. Was Sanaka shy? Or maybe she just wasn’t very good at concentrating?
The mystery of Sanaka’s problems was unveiled as we and the Partnership of Education were rolling out a new scheme to train teachers to assess whether their students needed glasses. It turned out that Sanaka had high refractive error – her vision was blurred – and she needed a pair of glasses.
When we met Sanaka four years later, it amazed our staff how much confidence and potential a pair of $5 spectacles had unleashed. It was hard to believe what Sanaka was like before and this amazing progress had not gone unnoticed. Sanaka had become one of the top five pupils in her class. Not only does she enjoy learning but she can also cycle home, read and watch TV. Her aspirations soared, and she now dreams of becoming a teacher.
Sanaka is one of many. Refractive error – the need for glasses – affects around 10 per cent of school children in developing countries and this common problem limits many children’s opportunities in school. Research has found that training teachers to value and test their pupil’s sight and ensure that the student is referred to an eye care professional that can make the correct diagnosis and prescribe an affordable, quality pair of glasses, makes all the difference. These solutions are affordable and cost-effective. This is especially important in developing countries where there aren’t enough basic health facilities and treatments that the poorest families can afford.
When we met Sanaka four years later, it amazed our staff how much confidence and potential a pair of $5 spectacles had unleashed.
However we still have a long way to go to achieve recognition that health and learning go hand-in-hand. This doesn’t just affect performance in schools but, as schools lay such an important foundation, it continues to limit the potential and opportunities in that child’s life. It’s not just sight and the senses – Sightsavers’ work includes other health problems, such as those caused by intestinal worms. Long term, intestinal worms can reduce income in adulthood by as much as 22 per cent.
Education and health professionals need to work together. School staff must also be included in a holistic approach to health promotion in schools but it can only start with a whole-of-government approach to health and education policies. Sightsavers have been supported by the World Bank and Global Partnership for Education to develop health interventions like this in schools to reach 40,000 school children in Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal and Cambodia.
Thanks to Dubai Cares we are now able to extend that work in Liberia to show how children can be reached on a national scale. Not wearing glasses seems like a low-level problem, but the human costs can be huge. We need to make sure that our senses can fully connect us to the people, places and ideas that matter most in our lives, and that people who will be shaping our world in the future can do the same. To find out more about eye health and the work Sightsavers do, please see Sightsavers.org
- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.