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Living with low vision in Denmark

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Michaela Medveďová / Sara R. Newell

Low Vision Awareness Month is observed annually throughout February to spread more information about Age-related Muscular Degeneration (AMD) and other diseases that can affect one's eyes to the point of causing visual impairment, being one of the top causes of vision loss in older parts of the population in the Western world.

In honour of Low Vision Awareness Month, in this month's issue, we will dive into the situation of people with low or no vision who live in Denmark and review some of the issues and challenges they might encounter.

How large is the low-vision community in Denmark?

According to Danske Blindesamfund (Danish Society for the Blind), it is difficult to know the exact number of people with visual impairments who live in Denmark as they are not registered. However, based on the research they cite, approximately 32 thousand people in Denmark might have a visual impairment. Furthermore, the latest research conducted by Toke Bek, professor and ophthalmologist, concluded that there are approximately 12.5 thousand people in Denmark with severe visual impairment (total or partial vision loss).

When it comes to children with severe visual impairment or blindness, Danske Blindesamfund describes that most cases are detected shortly after birth or before starting school: "This means that early medical, social medical and optical efforts can be made to preserve and utilise residual vision. In addition, the relatives and others around the child can receive the necessary social, psychological and special educational advice and guidance at an early stage." The association puts the number of youth with visual impairment at 1800.

What is Denmark's categorisation of visual impairment?

Danske Blindesamfund states that Denmark uses a social classification of visual impairment which consists of four categories:

A: Low vision, which equals between 33% and 10% of normal vision

B: Socially blind (severely low vision), which equals less than 10% of normal vision)

C: Practically blind, which equals 1% or less of normal vision

D: Totally blind, which equals light sense minus projection or no light sense

"More than half of all people with blindness and low vision between the ages of 16 and 64 do not have an education that provides skills for the labour market."

Resources available

Danske Blindesamfund and IBOS - Institutet for Blinde og Svagsynede (The Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired) offer many resources for people with low vision.

On the Danske Blindesamfund website, among other things, you can find an offer of consultation - a visit from a consultant when you experience total or partial vision loss, providing advice on education and job market possibilities along with help with social life. They also offer a free telephone counselling service, courses, and social activities.

On top of having trained guide dogs for over 70 years, they provide information about getting a guide dog. They also provide housing offers: "In the Copenhagen area, you will find a number of the Danish Society for the Blind's homes, which people with visual impairments have priority to rent. In addition, the Danish Society for the Blind has built four residential and daycare facilities specially designed for visually impaired people; Solgaven Næstved, Solgaven Farum, Solgaven Vejle and Solgavehjemmet Valby."

You can also become a member of the organisation.

IBOS is a rehabilitation and knowledge centre for young people (over 14) and adults who have a severe visual impairment. Similarly, they also have a housing offer in Copenhagen. They also focus on education and employment possibilities, offering preparatory education courses, youth courses to guide and upskill young people with low vision, and an STU - special youth education (Særligt tilrettelagte ungdomsuddannelse).

There are also job rehabilitation courses, a labour market mentor, or access to a nationwide network of professionals with low vision. IBOS also provides resources for employers and companies: "We teach digital accessibility, create partnerships and projects, and, not least, provide support to employers who want to hire people with visual impairments."

Why support and resources matter

Focusing on education and employment possibilities is crucial, especially for people with low vision. According to 2023 numbers provided by Danmarks Statistik and described by IBOS:

More than half of all people with blindness and low vision between the ages of 16 and 64 do not have an education that provides skills for the labour market. For the population, the corresponding figure is only one in three. Twice as many 30-34-year-olds with visual impairments start their careers without education other than primary or secondary school.

Meanwhile, members of the Danske Blindesamfund in North Jutland bring attention to a significant issue with accessibility in public spaces - specifically blocked guidelines:

In recent months, the newspaper Nordjyske has described how one of the most essential tools for the blind and visually impaired to orientate themselves in public spaces guidelines is often blocked by cafe chairs, tables and other obstacles. The focus has been on squares and pedestrian streets, but the problem is, unfortunately, far more extensive than that. This applies not only in North Jutland but throughout the country. There are also examples of guidelines ending in a lamp post, bush or wall, etc. Apart from the fact that you can get badly injured, you can quickly lose your orientation, and that's a shame because we can get around ourselves with the help of the guidelines and our cane, and we don't want to give up that freedom. Although it has improved recently, several Danish train platforms are missing guidelines or deficient guideline networks.

Stating that "the public space must and should be able to be designed so that people with visual impairments can get around freely," the writers call on municipalities to ensure that the guidelines remain entirely usable for people with visual impairments.

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