What Do People Who Are Blind See?

Blind person and friend cross street

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People who are visually impaired do not all see the world in exactly the same way. It depends on the type, severity, and duration of the condition that has affected a person's sight. Blindness is more of a broad category than a narrowly defined disorder.

Types of Blindness

Low vision that's defined as blindness is a decrease in a person's functional vision that cannot be corrected with traditional glasses, contact lenses, medications, or surgery. Blindness incorporates other measures of vision beyond visual acuity on an eye chart.

Total Blindness

Those who are totally blind see absolutely no light. Doctors will record this as "NLP" for no light perception.

Most people who have impaired vision have some remaining sight. Just 15% of people with an eye disorder actually fall into the totally blind category.

Included in this group are those who were born without sight, known as congenitally blind, as well as others who lose their sight later in life, such as due to an accident or disease.

Blindness With Light Perception

A person who can perceive light may have the ability to distinguish night from day. Someone who has blindness with light perception may be able to walk into an otherwise dark room with a lamp turned on and walk toward it.

While light perception means that a person doesn't live in total darkness, blindness makes a person unable to visually recognize objects, no matter how large or how closely these are held. Blindness with light perception makes visual ability strictly limited to differentiating light from dark.

Legally Blind

A diagnosis of being legally blind is a way of conveying eligibility for certain programs that help people with low vision.

  • The normal field of vision for both eyes is 180 degrees. A visual field that is less than 20 degrees wide is considered a classification of being legally blind.
  • The United States defines legal blindness as having a visual acuity of less than 20/200 on the classic Snellen acuity chart, which is known for the big E at the top. An acuity of 20/20 is considered as not having a visual acuity deficit.

Having either of these impairments would define a person as legally blind. Of those age 40 or older, nearly 1.3 million Americans fit the definition of legally blind.

To have less than 20/200 vision means that when standing 20 feet away from the chart you are unable to make out the big E in your better-seeing eye, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Meanwhile, some vision charts measure vision between 20/100 and 20/200. Anyone who is unable to read the 20/100 line with corrective lenses is classified as legally blind since this falls within the classification of 20/200 vision or less.

A number of different conditions can lead to becoming legally blind.

Some causes of low vision include:

  • Macular degeneration: This disease targets the fine central vision of the eye. When both eyes are affected, vision can measures less than 20/200 on a chart, although peripheral vision (side vision) may remain intact.
  • Cataract: When severe enough, the opaque lens of the eye does not let sufficient light through to get to the retina, which can diminish vision to less than 20/200. However, the cataract can be surgically removed and vision significantly improved.
  • Diabetic retinopathy: This condition can cause significant vision loss due to retinal detachment or swelling or bleeding of the retina.
  • Glaucoma: This disease develops when pressure on the optic nerve causes damage, leading to loss of peripheral vision.
  • Retinitis pigmentosa: This genetic condition can cause tunnel vision, in which just a very narrow area of central vision remains. A person would be considered legally blind even if the small area of central vision is 20/20.

Vision loss is unique to every individual and involves a whole spectrum of what their vision is like. Even if two people have 20/200 vision with macular degeneration, this does not mean that both individuals see the same way.

Sight When Dreaming

What blind people see when they are dreaming is influenced by how much sight they have when they're awake. A May 2014 study showed that people who are blind report fewer visual dream impressions than their sighted counterparts.

  • Those who are born blind tend to report that their dreams revolve around the other senses such as sound, touch, taste, and smell. They also tended to have more nightmares than sighted people or those who became blind later in life.
  • Individuals who became blind later in life reported more tactile dreams than those with sight.

Regardless of sight, the emotional impact and the themes of the dream were similar for all participants in the study.

Whether it's during the day or while sleeping, someone without sight will see the world in their own unique way. Each person is an individual, and this is why a vision rehabilitation plan is individualized and custom-tailored for each person affected by vision loss.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Foundation for the Blind. Low vision and legal blindness terms and descriptions.

  2. Cleveland Clinic, Low vision, October 15, 2020.

  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology, Eye health statistics.

  4. Bright Focus Foundation, Eye diseases that can cause legal blindness, November 16, 2020.

  5. Meaidi A, Jennum P, Ptito M, Kupers R. The sensory construction of dreams and nightmare frequency in congenitally blind and late blind individuals. Sleep Med. 2014 May;15(5):586-95. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2013.12.008

By Maxine Lipner
Maxine Lipner is a long-time health and medical writer with over 30 years of experience covering ophthalmology, oncology, and general health and wellness.