Making Eyecare Easier for People with Learning Disabilities




Date: 9 November 2009

Making Eyecare Easier for People with Learning Disabilities


People with learning disabilities now have easier access to better eye care and community optometrists and hospital optometrists and orthoptists have had the chance to improve their skills through specialist training after a successful pilot project in East London. The project has now been commissioned for five years.

A staggering one in three people with a learning disability has a sight problem, yet a minority get regular and effective sight tests according to SeeAbility. This puts many people with learning disabilities at risk of unnecessary sight loss.

In response to this need, NHS Tower Hamlets has introduced a service in both community optometry practices in Tower Hamlets and a specialist clinic at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. The project is supported by SeeAbility, formerly known as The Royal School for the Blind and aims to ensure that adults with learning disabilities gain access to regular and effective sight tests and low vision support.

All community optometrists who take part in the scheme receive an enhanced fee to reflect the longer testing time required and a testing kit provided and funded by the PCT. David Hewlett of FODO says, “People with learning disabilities have the same rights as everyone else in society and ought to be able to access the optical practice of their choice. The NHS contract should be flexible enough to provide for this on a national basis as an additional service.”

The first six months of the pilot project have shown that there is a definite need for the service. Three in four people were prescribed glasses and five of the 25 attending hospital clinics were referred for registration as partially sighted. Poonam Sharma, Tower Hamlets Optometry Advisor comments, “After a very successful eye 2 eye pilot scheme last year, we are very pleased that Tower Hamlets PCT is funding this project. We have already had extremely positive feedback from everyone who used the service.”

Carers felt the benefit from the scheme, making comments such as,

“The eye clinic staff were very patient, and had good communication skills.”

“The optician was friendly, understanding.”

Some carers commented on the thoroughness of the examination:

“They explained clearly what was happening.”

“The tests were appropriate and thorough.”

And results were good too, with comments like:

“Definite improvement. [He] seems to notice more when looking at things.”

“[She] enjoyed the experience. [She is] not frightened of hospitals anymore.”

Paula Spinks-Chamberlain, SeeAbility’s Director of Information and Advisory Services comments, “We are delighted to have been involved with this ground-breaking scheme in Tower Hamlets. It shows Tower Hamlets’ commitment to providing a first class eye health care service to people with a learning disability and their commitment to the equalities agenda. We look forward to working with other PCTs to replicate similar projects throughout the UK.”

Keith Marshall, Eye Health Programme Manager for Tower Hamlets has found benefits from the scheme that go beyond its initial scope: “The primary benefit from this piece of partnership working has been to improve access to eye tests for people with Learning Disabilities by commissioning and delivering appropriately structured eye tests delivered by suitable skilled and trained eye care professionals in the community and in the hospital. This collaboration across primary and secondary care, community health services and the voluntary sector helps the sharing of knowledge, cross-fertilisation of ideas and sharing of best practice.”

SeeAbility’s information website, Look Up provides adults with a learning disability, carers, eye care professionals and health and social care staff with a wealth of information about eye care and vision for people with learning disabilities. For further information visit

For further information on the Enhanced Primary Care Optometry service in Tower Hamlets please call Tower Hamlets Optometric Adviser Poonam Sharma 0207 092 5830


– ENDS –

Issued by SeeAbility, for further information please contact:

Monica Cornforth on 020 8997 1261 or 07811 147 192


  • SeeAbility is the operating name for The Royal School for the Blind, a national charity which has for over 200 years provided support for people who are blind or partially sighted and have additional disabilities.
  • SeeAbility currently provides a range of services in; Birmingham, Bristol, Devon, East Sussex, Hampshire, Humberside, London, Sheffield, Somerset, Surrey and West Sussex.
  • SeeAbility offers a wide range of specialised residential, community and rehabilitation services for people with a visual impairment and additional disabilities. Our aim is to provide each individual with the support they need to develop essential life skills for greater independence and a fulfilling life.
  • SeeAbility’s eye 2 eye Campaign, a community-based initiative, is improving eye care and vision for people with a learning disability.
  • Look-Up provides information and advice on eye care and vision for people with learning disabilities.
  • SeeAbility’s Central Office is based in Epsom, Surrey. For further information call 01372 755000 or visit
  • NHS Tower Hamlets, in partnership with SeeAbility and Barts and the London NHS Trust has been running a six month pilot project to improve access to eye tests and improve quality of eye services for people with learning disabilities. This was done by commissioning extended eye examinations from community optometrists, who received an accredited training, and providing a specialist clinic in a hospital eye service. A six month pilot began in September 2008.
  • The specialist clinic operates from Royal London Orthoptic department twice a month. Three people with learning disabilities that make them hard to test can be examined each session. People are examined by both an orthoptist and an optometrist to provide the best possible outcome.
  • A SeeAbility eye 2 eye development officer and a learning disability nurse attended clinic appointments over the first 6 months to support staff, and to identify pathways and additional help from low vision support to wearing glasses.

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