What Is the Meaning of Legally Blind?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

"Legally blind" is the definition of blindness used by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) to determine if someone is eligible to receive disability benefits, tax exemptions, and low vision training.

The term also may be used by health insurers to determine benefits and as part of vision screening tests required by state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) in determining driver's license eligibility.

For safety reasons, people with legal blindness or low vision are typically ineligible for a driver's license.

Person looking at a Snellen chart
CentralITAlliance / iStock / Getty Images

This article explains exactly what it means to be considered legally blind. It also details how people are tested for the condition, what causes it, and how it can be treated.

Total Blindness Is Different

Being legally blind is not the same as being totally blind. Most people who are legally blind have some vision. People who are totally blind live with a "complete lack of light perception and form perception." Among those people living with an eye disorder, about 85% have some sight and 15% are totally blind.

Meaning

To be considered legally blind, you must meet one of two criteria for visual acuity (sharpness of vision) and visual field (the entire scope of what you can see without moving your eyes).

Legally Blind Criteria

To be considered legally blind, you must have:

  • Visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the eye you can see out of best (while wearing corrective glasses or contacts)
  • A visual field of no more than 20 degrees

Visual Acuity

Visual acuity refers to how close a person needs to be to an object that's 20 feet away in order to see it in detail. Normal vision is measured as 20/20. If you had visual acuity of 20/80, it would mean that you would be able to see details from 20 feet away the same as a person with 20/20 vision could see from 80 feet away.

A legally blind person with 20/200 vision (with the best corrective lenses) would need to be 20 feet from an object in order to see it as well as someone with 20/20 vision could see it from 200 feet away.

Low vision is a visual acuity of 20/40 or worse while wearing corrective lenses.

Visual Field

If a person has a visual field of only 20 degrees, they can see things that are right in front of them without moving their eyes from side to side, but they can't see anything on either side (peripheral vision).

A visual field of 180 degrees is considered normal. A severely limited visual field sometimes is called tunnel vision. It makes it nearly impossible to drive safely.

Age Can Undercut Vision

More than 4.2 million people over age 40 are legally blind or have low vision. The leading reasons: age-related conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.

Diagnosis

An eye doctor measures visual acuity and visual field to determine if a person is legally blind, and whether wearing glasses or contact lenses could improve their vision.

A common test for visual acuity is the Snellen eye chart. Someone who is legally blind would be able to read only the top line of the chart (a capital E) while wearing corrective lenses. The line below the big E is the line for 20/100.

There are also tests that can measure in between 20/200 and 20/100. Someone who cannot view the line for 20/100 but sees somewhere between 20/100 and 20/200 would still meet the government's standard of legal blindness, which is why it is listed as "20/200 or less."

Visual field testing often begins with a confrontational visual field test. An eye doctor has you cover one eye at a time. They then hold up one or more fingers in different quadrants of the visual field to find out if you can see them while keeping your eyes focused on a central point ahead.

There are also more comprehensive computerized tests that use flashing, flickering, or moving lights or images to measure your visual field. It involves pressing a button when you see the light or images.

Causes

There are many conditions that can lead to legal blindness, but the most common ones are age-related. In many cases, early diagnosis and treatment for these can prevent blindness. They include:

Eye trauma or injuries and genetic conditions, such as Usher syndrome, can also lead to legal blindness.

Treatment

Treatments for legal blindness vary depending on the cause and the stage of the disease that has caused the loss of vision. For age-related eye diseases, treatments typically involve prescription medications or eye procedures to try to delay or keep the vision from worsening.

The goal of treatment for glaucoma is to reduce eye pressure. This can be achieved with prescription eye drops or oral medications, laser procedures, and, in severe cases, surgery to try to prevent further damage. Careful monitoring of glaucoma and other age-related eye diseases is important; it can help determine if the treatment is working or needs to be adjusted.

Cataracts are the exception in that vision can be restored with surgery to remove the clouded lens and, in most cases, replaced with an implant.

Prevention

The best way to prevent vision loss is to take care of your overall health (including your eyes). Seeing your healthcare provider regularly and getting your eyes examined can help alert you to conditions, like diabetes, that could impact your sight.

Other steps you can take to safeguard your sight include maintaining a healthy weight (which could put you at risk of developing diabetes), wearing eye protection for certain activities (such as sports), and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of diabetes-related blindness is preventable. Controlling your blood sugar is an important step in preventing diabetes-related vision loss.

Summary

Most people who are legally blind have some vision. And to be deemed "legally blind," their vision must be bad enough that they meet one of two standards: They must have a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the eye they can see out of best (while wearing corrective glasses or contacts) or have a visual field of no more than 20 degrees.

Ophthalmologists have several tests at their disposal to confirm a diagnosis. Legal blindness can make you feel helpless, but unfortunately, some health issues that can lead to this condition simply become more commonplace as people get older.

A Word From Verywell

Low vision or legal blindness can be limiting, but there are many resources and assistive devices to help you live your life with a spirit of independence. Depending on the cause of your vision loss, you may be able to benefit from eye exercises and strategies for participating in everyday activities. You may also find that using a cane, talking calculator, special computer software, or other products designed to support people who are legally blind to be helpful.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What prescription is considered legally blind?

    Legal blindness is defined as 20/200 vision. The prescription equivalent is -2.5. It is important to note that prescriptions for corrective lenses are different for each person, and measurements can be different for each eye.

  • Is legally blind considered a disability?

    Possibly. The Social Security Administration does have benefits for people who are legally blind, provided certain criteria are met.

  • Can someone who is legally blind still drive?

    Yes, provided that your vision can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. If your eyesight cannot be corrected, you should not drive.

  • Can Lasik cure legal blindness?

    Lasik surgery is appropriate for people whose visual acuity falls within a certain range. If your eyesight is poor, you should talk to an ophthalmologist to determine whether Lasik could be an option to improve your sight.

9 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. Steinkuller P. Legal vision requirements for drivers in the United StatesAMA Journal of Ethics. 2010;12(12):938-940. doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2010.12.12.hlaw1-1012.

  2. American Foundation for the Blind. Low vision and legal blindness terms and descriptions.

  3. Social Security. Understanding supplemental security income SSI eligibility requirements2020 edition.

  4. Striem-Amit E, Guendelman M, Amedi A. 'Visual' acuity of the congenitally blind using visual-to-auditory sensory substitutionPLoS One. 2012;7(3):e33136. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033136

  5. Valenzuela T, Mosier J, Sakles J. Tunnel vision. JEMS. 2013;38(1):32-4, 36-7.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common eye disorders and diseases.

  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Visual field test.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips to prevent vision loss.

  9. Social Security Administration. If you're blind or have low vision - how we can help.