Helping Kids Manage Vision Impairment: Q&A with Jeffrey Sonsino, OD
Mojo Vision is fortunate to work with the smartest and most committed eye care professionals, and Dr. Jeffrey Sonsino is one of those partners. An accomplished optometrist, Dr. Sonsino’s achievements are significant.Jan 20, 2021
While Dr. Sonsino's primary focus is running a successful specialty contact lens practice in Nashville, he also assists young people with vision loss exclusively though The Smokey Powell Center at Georgia Academy for the Blind. Dr. Sonsino recently gave us some details on his lifelong quest to provide better vision to all in need.
Why did you become an optometrist? What sparked your interest in helping people see better?
My start in optometry came from my grandfather’s, father’s, and uncle's diagnoses of glaucoma. I watched my grandfather lose his eyesight later in life. When my father and uncle were diagnosed, I realized that this was obviously genetic. So, in optometry school, I had the chance to contribute a small piece to the literature aimed at understanding the condition better. I published a peer-reviewed paper under the tutelage of one of the giants in the field, Dr. Thomas Freddo, optometrist and ocular pathologist at Boston University.
After optometry school, I continued that journey as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt Medical Center, eventually directing the Center for Sight Enhancement. While at Vanderbilt, I had the chance to work on, and eventually to administer, a large grant that allowed me to evaluate any child’s vision in Tennessee diagnosed with a vision impairment. The father of the field of pediatric low vision, Dr. Randy Jose, consulted with us on the grant. In the process, I was lucky enough to be mentored by, and develop a lifelong friendship with, Dr. Jose, where he taught me everything I know about the field today. Seeing numerous kids with vision impairment who would benefit from advanced contact lenses led me to my true passion: designing customized contact lenses for patients that are the most difficult to fit.
You work with younger people affected by blindness exclusively through the Smokey Powell Center at Georgia Academy for the Blind. What challenges do younger vision impaired people deal with unique to their age?
When I left Vanderbilt Medical Center for private practice, I left the grant in very capable hands. But it also meant that I lost one of my favorite endeavors, seeing patients with pediatric low vision. When the Smokey Powell Center at Georgia Academy for the Blind heard that I left Vanderbilt, they asked me to join them and volunteer, I couldn't resist! For me, helping the most vulnerable kids in our society is incredibly important work. Kids with vision impairment are capable of performing just like their peers if given the right tools and accommodations. I've seen kids with severe vision loss grow up to become lawyers, PhDs, extremely successful businesspeople, and succeed in just about every profession.
There are two types of kids with vision impairment: those who don't want to appear different than their peers, and those who will use any optical device, technology, or tool that will allow them to function independently. The kids who choose the latter tend not to allow the vision impairment to get in the way, and they end up very successful. That is something that typically-sighted kids don't need to reconcile.
What is the largest misconception about blindness?
I think when people hear blind, they think total darkness or completely blacked-out vision. But the term blindness actually refers to vision impairment with many different levels of vision. Legal blindness actually refers to people who measure 20/200 or worse (able to see only the top letter on most vision charts) in the better-seeing eye. Another way to measure blindness includes the measurement of peripheral (side) vision. When the visual field is 20 degrees or less, this is also considered legal blindness, even if the center of vision is 20/20. Oftentimes, patients with glaucoma or a condition called retinitis pigmentosa fall into this category.
What new tools have you seen in technology to aid accessibility over the last ten years?
The most exciting new tools in low vision all have to do with advanced technology. Hardware and software solutions are going to revolutionize the field of vision impairment in the next ten years, both in magnification (for central vision impairment) and in mobility (for peripheral vision impairment).
What tools or help can we provide as sighted people to assist the blind?
I think we can all be a little more patient with each other. Often, typically-sighted people cannot tell if another person has a vision impairment by appearance, so they attribute that person’s lack of obtaining information to limited intelligence or not paying attention. As a result, the visually impaired are sometimes made to feel inferior, and that should never happen.
Final question – what can we all do to help preserve our vision?
By far the most important thing you can do is see an optometrist every year for routine eye care. Optometrists can see the early signs of conditions that cause vision impairment, sometimes years before the vision suffers. In many conditions, prevention of vision loss is possible and is always preferable to treatment once vision loss takes hold.