SeeAbility Scott WatkinNHS England’s national sight testing and funding system is letting down the one million people with learning disabilities in England and requires an urgent overhaul, according to an eye care charity.

SeeAbility and eye health organisation the Local Optical Committee Support Unit (LOCSU) are calling for an overhaul of the system as there are huge levels of sight problems among people with learning disabilities and many currently miss out on the eye care they need. Some are even tragically losing their sight.

SeeAbility’s new report, Delivering an equal right to sight, found that 1 in 10 people with learning disabilities are blind or partially sighted and 6 in 10 will need glasses. 

In addition, children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem than other children yet studies indicate 4 in 10 of the 100,000 children in special schools have never had a sight test. Additionally, up to half of adults with learning disabilities have not had their eyes tested in the recommended period. 

“The system needs to be designed around the needs of people with learning disabilities, rather than putting barriers in their way,” said Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, who hosted the report launch in parliament. “It makes much more sense for people to be supported to get low-cost early eye care rather than end up losing their independence and relying on high cost care and support because their vision is impaired.”

People with learning disabilities, their families and supporters are being asked to sign a petition calling on NHS England to deliver a more inclusive system and offer free sight tests for all working age people with learning disabilities. 

Sight tests not only help people get the glasses they need, they can identify serious sight threatening conditions like cataracts and glaucoma. There is currently no NHS plan for eye care and little mention of the high risk of sight problems or the need for checks in new national learning disability strategies. 

The current NHS contract for sight tests fails to recognise that people are likely to need additional time or appointments to complete a sight test, as well as better support with glasses. Those of working age may not be eligible for NHS-funded sight tests, unlike other high risk groups which are, such as those with a family history of glaucoma.

Katrina Venerus, speaking on behalf of the Optical Confederation, said: “Despite pockets of good practice where the LOCSU learning disabilities eye care pathway has been introduced, it’s clear that local commissioning is not working and people with learning disabilities are missing out on potentially life-changing sight tests. A national approach is what required.”

SeeAbility believe there needs to be awareness training in health and social care on the risks and signs of a sight problem in people with learning disabilities. Eye care services need to provide accessible information and reasonable adjustments, and the report features projects across the country supporting people with learning disabilities that others can learn from, including SeeAbility’s work to deliver sight tests and glasses to children in special schools. 

Scott Watkin, SeeAbility’s eye care and vision development officer, has a learning disability and a serious eye condition, keratoconus, which has been treated but still needs monitoring. It was first spotted in his special school. He said: “Just because I have a learning disability it doesn’t mean my sight isn’t as important as anyone else’s. I have a job and a young family, and things would be much more difficult for me if my sight hadn’t been saved – but I was lucky.”