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A light for sore eyes

Dunedinites with low vision are discovering which light bulbs are best for their sight, thanks to an inspiring new project that helps them get ‘light prescriptions’.

Bad vision

What is the difference between lux, lumens and wattage? What is luminance? Where do LED lights fit in, in relation to incandescent and halogen bulbs?

These sound like questions from a physics class but the ‘students’ are actually senior-age Dunedinites with low vision, who are exploring these questions in an effort to understand how to improve their own homes’ lighting and boost their vision as much as possible.

The project currently involves a ‘pilot’ focus group of 18 people with vision impairment from different community groups who are learning about the science of light.

Mary Butler

“We go to their houses and straight away they’re getting the bulbs out and trying to figure out how many lumens it is and what this has to do with wattage and so on,” says Otago Polytechnic occupational therapy principal lecturer Mary Butler, who is responsible for the project.

“There are so many things that we’re all learning along the way and, actually, I think this is a very appropriate project for Curious Minds and the PSP because I’m learning so much myself as I get into the project too.”

Mary hopes that these people will ultimately go back to their communities and talk about what they’ve learnt, which in turn will inspire others to take a look at their home lighting.

Next gen support

close-up of the LuxIQ unit

Mary also wants the next generation of occupational therapists to incorporate low vision support in their work, so is educating new students on how to carry out assessments of people’s light needs and whether the lighting in their home matches this.

At the heart of this is a cool piece of kit called LuxIQ, which contains a light that can be adjusted to change its intensity and warmth.

Just like an eye exam, you can place the LuxIQ box in front of the person with low vision and simply ask them which setting their eyes find most comfortable. The lux (brightness) and kelvin (colour/warmth) readings can then be used to find the right lightbulb.

For World Sight Day on Thursday 13 October, Mary and her team raised awareness of low vision by setting up a stall showing people the LuxIQ device and how it works. The day also involved lots of challenges where people would attempt to do everyday tasks while wearing goggles that mimicked different types of vision impairment.

The team even created a mobility scooter track where passers-by would have a go at navigating the scooter around a series of traffic cones – giving them a new appreciation for what life is like as a person with low vision.

Not an 'old' problem

Girl wearing goggles

Mary tells us that even people with normal vision need more light later on in our lives. When we reach 65, our eyes actually need three times more light than they do during our 20s.

This difference is much greater for people with low vision, but low vision doesn’t just apply to old people. Mary explains that the latest disability census shows a huge upsurge of low vision and vision impairment in people from as young as 45 years – making it now a middle-age rather than retirement-age problem.

She also points out that low vision is linked with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and other conditions, and that these are often under-diagnosed in young children because the people who run the standard hearing and sight tests are better trained to detect hearing loss than vision impairment.

A big focus of the project is for people with low vision to be self-sufficient.  It can be difficult to get help as their vision impairment is not severe enough to qualify as blindness.

Conversely, people with low vision tend to underestimate how much light they need, so Mary’s aim is to help them to work out scientifically for themselves what they actually need and how to get it.

Policeman wearing goggles and riding a mobility scooter

“When their eye test results come back and they get told ‘there’s nothing we can do’, they go home and become socially isolated and depressed because they can’t keep up,” Mary says.

“Lighting helps people with low vision stay socially connected, like by going to the funeral they were able to read the notice for in the newspaper, or seeing well enough to do their shopping online so that they have enough energy to go to their local support group.

“The other day I heard a scientist say that ‘social isolation is as dangerous for health as smoking cigarettes’, so we have to do everything we can to reduce it.”



See more photos from the day here

Learn more about the project and low vision on the Facebook page for Vision Matters OT or VICTA (Vision Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa).

Find out what Occupational Therapy involves on Mary’s department Facebook page: Otago Polytechnic OT.

Photo credits: Craig Grant, Holly Hoogvliet. Photo of LuxIQ with kind permission from Jasper Ridge Inc.

About the project

VICTA logo

The light assessments and LuxIQ component of this project is funded by the Otago Participatory Science Platform (PSP), which is managed by Craig Grant at Otago Museum.


Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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