Sight is the sense that people most fear losing, but eye health and visual impairment has a very low profile across Parliament and Government. There is little understanding of the impact of sight loss on the nation’s health and wellbeing, or to the public purse.
There are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss. Research commissioned by RNIB from Deloitte Access Economics estimates that the cost to the UK economy of sight loss in the adult population of the UK totalled £28.1 billion in 2013.
The needs of people with visual impairment are also routinely overlooked when new policies are developed.
When Personal Independence Payments replaced the Disability Living Allowance, charities raised concerns about the capability of the new providers to carry out assessments. The concerns were ignored and, as the charities forewarned, the application process is causing blind and partially sighted people hardship and distress. Many have had their claims wrongly refused. PIP assessors often do not understand sight loss and its impact on people’s daily lives, and some even conduct eye tests overriding evidence from NHS ophthalmologists. Added to that, the application and assessment processes are inaccessible to many blind and partially sighted people.
Access to public transport and the built environment are consistently cited as among the biggest concerns of blind and visually impaired people, with spontaneous travel being extremely difficult. ‘Shared spaces’, for example, pose problems for many people with sight loss. They are an urban design concept that can include the elimination of signal-controlled pedestrian crossings, street signs, road markings, kerbs and pavements, in favour of a space that is ‘shared’ by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. The concept relies on the use of eye contact between pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, to negotiate who will proceed, and when. The removal of kerbs and signal-controlled crossings, among other things, can make it difficult or impossible for blind and partially sighted people to navigate an area safely; many people with sight loss are unable to make eye contact, and use kerbs and crossings to cross roads safely.
As well as facing accessibility challenges in everyday life, blind and partially sighted people are often prevented from engaging with government and local authority consultations and parliamentary inquiries, due to inaccessible evidence-gathering processes; online submission portals are often incompatible with assistive technology, and alternative formats unavailable.
As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment, I work hard with my colleagues on the group to highlight challenges faced by people living with visual impairment. As the above examples show, we clearly have a lot of work to do.
Among our officers, we have the Labour Member of Parliament Marsha De Cordova, who is herself visually impaired. Marsha has a strong background of raising awareness of the issues of visually impaired people. Now she is using her position as an MP to continue that work. We, of course, also have my Co-Chair Lord Low and our Vice-Chair Lord Blunkett, who, in their many years in Parliament, have highlighted issues faced by visually impaired people. Their contribution is crucial.
The APPG recently held a meeting on eye research which highlighted the unacceptably low level of funding for research on eye conditions. The charity Fight for Sight do great work to fund eye research, ranging from common conditions like glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration to rarer conditions like choroideremia. But we need to do more, and the Government needs to do more. Government spending on eye research is currently just one per cent of its overall spending on medical research, which is much lower than for other long-term conditions.
By the time that this edition of Politics First is published, we will have launched the report of our inquiry into capacity issues in NHS eye services and preventing avoidable sight loss. That was prompted by research by the British Ophthalmological Surveillance Unit that shows 20 people a month were suffering severe visual loss due to long waits to receive hospital appointments. Colleagues across the House should get behind our report, and join us in working with the Government to implement the report’s recommendations. I would, therefore, encourage members to attend the event, taking place on Wednesday 6 June, from 4-6pm, in the Churchill Room.