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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 December 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 8

Independent Travel Issues

Celebrating Nearly 12 Years as a Bioptic Driver

Editor's Note: Bioptics make driving possible for some people with low-vision. This eye-opening story is presented as told to Detra Bannister, AFB's CareerConnect specialist. -- Lee Huffman

Everyone knows that telescopes are used to magnify distant objects. What is less well known is that telescopes may be mounted in eyewear called bioptics or telescopic glasses. Thousands of people in the United States with low vision use bioptics to drive, watch television, or perform other distance tasks. A bioptic is a lens system with a telescope attached to a pair of prescription glasses above or below one's normal line of sight. This allows a trained user to detect objects or movement within his/her field of vision through the regular eyeglass lens, and to resolve fine details such as road signs and traffic lights by glancing briefly into the miniature telescope. Bioptic telescopes enlarge images just like binoculars, though their purpose for driving is not to see things larger, but to see them further away. The difficulty that the visually impaired encounter while driving is that they must get so close to a sign or signal to see it, that there is not sufficient time for them to make the appropriate driving adjustments. The bioptic telescope allows them to see the target from farther away, giving them more time to react. While driving, bioptics are used in much the same way that we use side and rear view mirrors--for spotting purposes and for brief periods of time.

For most people, driving is something taken for granted. However, millions of people in the U.S. have low vision, which is sight that cannot be corrected to 20/40; 20/40 is what is needed to get a driver's license. The good news is that 39 states now allow people with low vision to drive using telescopic glasses. Many also allow people who are blind in one eye to drive if the other eye has good vision. Some states allow for restricted licenses based on time of day, distance from home, and even maximum speed. You should consult your low-vision specialist and your state's Department of Motor Vehicles to determine the laws where you live.

Please note that even when legal, bioptic driving still may not be safe for an individual; for example, poor peripheral vision will keep you from getting a license in most states. Also, pre-driving skills are required, such as hazard perception and the ability to make and act on decisions quickly and independently, as well as visual skills involving recognition, peripheral identification, and scanning types of tasks. With these cautions in mind, here is one driver's account:

"Daddy, how will I get around when I grow up if I can't see enough to drive?" My dad replied, "Well, pumpkin, you will just marry a doctor and have a chauffeur drive you around!" I vividly remember this conversation as a 9-year-old with my dad. Not that I truly believed it would come true (that I would have a chauffeur), but I figured no one with low vision would be driving a car in my lifetime. Of course I wanted to try, so when I turned 16, my mom and I went to the driver's license office where I attempted to take the eye test. "Read line 3, please," the clerk said. I thought to myself, "What line?" Although I could see something black in the viewer, there was no way I could read line 3 or any other line. I walked out discouraged but not really surprised. After all, my dad had been warning me about this possibility for a long time.

Fast forward a few years to graduate school, where I sat in a classroom working on my master's degree in blind rehabilitation teaching. On the overhead projector were devices to help people with vision loss to drive using special glasses. I had never heard of such a thing and thought this surely would not apply to me.

In 1995, I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, to start my career as a blind rehabilitation teacher. I was encouraged to attend a luncheon held every month for professionals working in the field of vision rehabilitation. The first luncheon meeting was in Indianapolis and I took the bus there. At lunch, I spoke with two vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors about bioptic driving. "Why don't you check it out?" they suggested. "Meet with a VR counselor for help in pursuing this option." I decided not to let this opportunity pass me by; if I could legally be allowed to drive, then whatever fears I had were not going to get the best of me.

To start the process, I called a VR counselor, who helped me to complete a plan for employment. As an itinerant rehabilitation teacher, driving was going to be a great help. Then it was off to an appointment with the low-vision doctor, who would determine whether it would be possible for me to qualify for bioptic driving. Once I got his okay to proceed and received the bioptics (which must be prescribed and fitted by your doctor), I needed to practice looking through the bioptic properly. The next step was going to a rehabilitation agency for a test to determine if I had good reaction time. Once this was completed, I was able to take a letter from my low-vision doctor to the driver's license office that excused me from taking the standard eye exam. I took the written test, passed, and got my learner's permit.

In Indiana, a person must have a learner's permit for six weeks. As a bioptic driver, I was only allowed to learn under a qualified professional, so for four weeks, I had the learner's permit, but could not legally drive alone. After four weeks, I began 30 hours of driver's training. By the end of my first week of training, the lessons included driving downtown as well as driving on the interstate. As I went home, I wondered if I could really do this. I was not so sure. Then I said to myself, "Even if the only place I go is to the grocery store, I will legally drive if I am allowed to." The second week of training went by, I took the driver's test, and passed with flying colors! The whole process took from August of 1995 to May 1996.

I have now been a bioptic driver for more than 11 years and so far, so good. I drove for nine years as an itinerant rehabilitation teacher and took vacations here and there (one time driving over 3,500 miles). I now drive all over Indiana as an itinerant rehabilitation teaching manager at Bosma Enterprises and still enjoy my time behind the wheel. I am extremely thankful for all who helped me through this process: vocational rehabilitation, the low-vision specialist, and my driving instructor who worked for a rehabilitation agency. I recognize that I am very lucky to have this privilege and am thankful every day for the opportunity I have to drive. My dad would be so proud and amazed that this is possible for someone with vision loss.

For further information, please contact: Deanna Austin

Further reading:

Low Vision Driving with Bioptics: An Overview (JVIB article)

By Anne L. Corn, Ed.D., Chuck Huss

Price: $5.95

Format: Online

This article presents an overview of driving for adolescents and adults who meet their state's visual requirements for low-vision driving using bioptic lenses. It also discusses the outcomes of two studies of bioptic driver education.

Suggestions for rehab specialists who become involved in the provision of low-vision driver education training and assessment services.

By Chuck Huss, C.O.M.S.

Bioptic Driving Network

A registered nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to serve the needs and interests of those with stable low vision who may be able to drive using bioptic glasses.

For more commentary on low-vision driving, read the 2007 Samuel N. Hesch Window on the Working World of Law Success Story by CareerConnect mentor and attorney Davin Seamon.

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