By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
Vision is an important part of learning, yet 93 per cent of children under the age of five have never had a proper eye exam, according to the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO).
A new program that is spreading across the country hopes to reverse this trend by offering free eye exams and free prescription glasses to children in junior kindergarten.
“We recognize that 80 per cent of learning happens through vision and that 10 per cent of children, pre-schoolers specifically, have undetected vision problems,” said Waterloo optometrist Karen MacDonald.
“That means there are no real clues to parents or educators that this child is not seeing well. Children assume that what they see is normal, and so they’re not always apt to tell you that something seems wrong.”
The ‘Eye See… Eye Learn’ (ESEL) program began in Alberta, but will be launching in Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding areas on July 1, 2013. Through the program, parents can take their child to any optometrist that is a member of OAO, and get an eye exam and glasses, if necessary, for free.
“Parents don’t always think of their children’s eyes when they start school. It’s just often overlooked that this would be a necessary part of starting their child off in school on a strong foot,” said MacDonald.
“The cost is also a factor. OHIP does cover children up until they turn 20. So the eye exam has always been covered. We’re fortunate in Ontario that way. But if a parent even suspects that the eye exam may lead to a need for glasses, then there are perhaps some economic barriers there as well. So ESEL removes all economic barriers to ensuring the child is tested and receives the proper treatment.”
Detecting and treating eye problems at a young age is vital, according to MacDonald, and can help reverse some vision issues and prevent life-long damage that can result from having a lazy eye.
“Lazy eye doesn’t always mean that the eye is crossed or turning in visibly. Lazy eye just means that for some reason a child might have one eye that is not receiving a good signal. It could just mean that that eye is blurry,” said MacDonald.
When a young child is not seeing clearly through one eye, the brain will shut off the signal and brain cells associated with the vision in that eye fail to properly develop, according to MacDonald.
“If that’s not caught by the time they’re eight or 10, that’s permanent, and it doesn’t matter what glasses an optometrist puts in front of them as an adult, they will not see well in that eye,” she said.
“On the other hand, if they come in as the result of ESEL . . . we can provide the picture the brain needs to make those cells develop and grow big and strong, and that changes their visual potential in that eye for life.”
Some schools already provide vision screenings, but these are not adequate to detect vision problems, according to MacDonald.
“Thirty per cent of the time they are giving false reassurances that things are fine when they’re not,” she said.
“The solution to the problem is a full exam through an optometrist with the ESEL program, where it’s accessible, it’s easy and it’s completely paid for.”
Children who are entering junior kindergarten in 2013 are eligible for the program, and parents can schedule an appointment with an OAO optometrist any time between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. Teachers are also expected to hand out information about the program at the beginning of the school year.
Eye exams are covered for these children under OHIP, and if the child requires glasses they will receive them free under ESEL.
For more information visit www.eyeseeeyelearn.ca or call 1-855-424-ESEL (3735).