World Braille Day on 4 January celebrates the birth of Louis Braille who invented the reading and writing system that helps millions of blind and partially sighted people throughout the world.
It is used by the World Blind Union, the global organisation that represents the estimated 285 million people worldwide who are blind or partially sighted, to increase public awareness of Braille and of advances in technology enabling those who are visually impaired to have the same access to reading and learning opportunities as those with unimpaired vision.
Although the importance and widespread availability of Braille to the visually impaired is not to be understated, other developments are becoming as, if not more, important in offering those with visual impairment an opportunity to significantly improve their quality of life.
One such advancement, whereby visually impaired patients are fitted with a ‘bionic eye’ to partially restore their lost vision, has recently received NHS funding for an initial trial in 2017.
The trial, which is taking place at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, will see 10 patients have an implant fitted to their retina, the light sensitive part of the eye that is responsible for creating images captured through the cornea and the lens. A camera, mounted on a pair of glasses, will wirelessly connect to the implant which will then interpret the images and transmit them to the patient’s brain.
Each of the patients confirmed for the trial have a form of inherited blindness, called retinitis pigmentosa, where the light sensitive cells of the retina at the back of the eye gradually fail, causing them to lose their vision. They will be monitored for 12 months following the treatment to see whether their vision and everyday quality of life improves. The success of the initial trial will help determine whether it is opened up to patients with other forms of blindness, such as age-related macular degeneration, which affects the vision of 60,000 people in the UK, and whether it becomes a widespread NHS treatment in the future.
According to Professor Paulo Stanga, who will be in charge of the initial trial, tests have so far shown that most patients who undergo treatment can see ‘something’ post-operatively.He expects the treatment to be routine within five years.
Arran Macleod, a solicitor in the ophthalmic clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP, said: “This is being heralded as a major victory for blind people. In the UK alone, more than two million people are visually impaired or blind, with no hope of a cure. If the ‘bionic eye’ devices are successful, the treatment has the potential to change the lives of thousands of individuals.
“We often act for visually impaired or blind patients and witness the physical and emotional difficulties they encounter in their day-to-day activities. Although it is not expected that the so-called bionic eye will produce normal sight, the development of a system that may restore some sense of vision would be a huge step forward. We hope the system continues to progress so that it may become a real solution in the future for anyone whose sight has been affected.”