I was in my forties when I discovered that I have an interiorised stammer – a relatively common problem, affecting over 750,000 people in the UK – and, thanks to a diagnosis and treatment from a speech therapist, I have been able to understand the condition and carry on with my career, knowing it is just part of who I am.
It just never occurred to me that it should hold me back. So, I am eager to find out the reasons why an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide, according to the Clearly campaign, continue to suffer from a condition which hinders children’s education, undermines economic productivity and entrenches gender inequality, and yet is perfectly treatable: poor vision.
Affecting almost a third of the world’s population, uncorrected poor vision – by which I mean natural short-sightedness (myopia) or the gradual loss of vision that comes to everyone of a certain age (presbyopia) – proves to be a huge obstacle to global economic development.
Uncorrected poor vision creates a litany of small setbacks for people whose lives would be drastically improved with a straightforward solution: a simple pair of glasses.
It increases the toll of healthcare provision and the indirect costs of road and domestic accidents and informal family care, and it leads to lost income and workplace productivity.
And the total global cost is huge. Access Economics has estimated that the global cost of poor vision is as much as $3 trillion a year.
Poor vision itself is not the subject of any UN’s Security Council Resolutions or any of the Sustainable Development Goals. While there are laudable efforts to fund medical interventions for the 165 million people worldwide who could suffer sight loss without attention, there is no multilateral commitment in place to tackle poor vision.
Yet, if we were to tackle poor vision like we tackled diseases like polio, we would face enjoy significant economics returns, lift people out of poverty and improve the quality of life for literally billions of people.
Many of our multilateral health and development targets would be impossible to achieve without tackling poor vision. For example, global goals to deliver quality education, decent work and gender equality.
The important point is that glasses are genuinely affordable, costing as little as £1 to produce.
Outlining the objectives of the Clearly campaign, its founder James Chen has highlighted four obstacles standing in our way – what he calls ‘the four Ds’.
The first is diagnosis. In most countries, eye tests are the preserve of optometrists who generally need four years of training. Yet technology allows someone with just three days training to carry out a simple test. Of course, we should be training more optometrists but it is much cheaper to train community nurses, teachers and even entrepreneurs – as countries like Rwanda and Botswana are doing.
And even when people are diagnosed, the logistical challenges of distribution, getting glasses to where they are needed, holds back a nationwide solution. Most of the billions of people with poor vision live in rural parts of the developing world, but they are not totally inaccessible. If you can buy a bottle of coke or packet of biscuits in rural villages around the world, why can’t we distribute glasses too?
The lengthy supply chain and the payment of import taxes and duties add many dollars in value to the average pair of glasses – particularly prescription glasses – by the time they are sold, putting them out of reach to families on low incomes.
Organisations like Vision for a Nation and Vision Spring have sought to tackle this challenge by subsidising the cost of a pair of glasses in counties like Rwanda and Bangladesh in the hope of creating a market for glasses that cost as little as £1.
Yet the final ‘D’ – demand – still poses problems. Those who wear glasses have always encountered social stigma, which can stop even those with the right prescription from experiencing the improvements that glasses will bring. When the market reaches a critical mass, this problem can be overcome.
Since the invention of glasses 700 years ago – and their proliferation after the invention of the printing press – clear vision has transformed countless lives. Yet a third of the global population are still living a blurry life.
It’s time to help the whole world see.