The Gift of Sight

Stephen DeAngelis

January 16, 2009

Celtic folk musician and story teller, Charles de Lint, wrote, “The few wonders of the world only exist while there are those with the sight to see them.” Although we have been blessed by the talents of numerous sight-challenged individuals like Homer, John Milton, Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano, and Andrea Boccelli, the world — especially the developing world — can be very difficult for people with sight problems. Not everyone who is sight-challenged is blind. An Oxford physicist is doing what he can to help such individuals see again [“From a Visionary English Physicist, Self-Adjusting Lenses for the Poor,” by Mary Jordan, Washington Post, 10 January 2009].

“Joshua Silver remembers the first day he helped a man see. Henry Adjei-Mensah, a tailor in Ghana, could no longer see well enough to thread the needle of his sewing machine. He was too poor to afford glasses or an optometrist. Then Silver, an atomic physicist who also taught optics at Oxford University, handed him a pair of self-adjusting glasses he had designed, and suddenly the tailor’s world came into crystal-clear focus. ‘He grinned and started operating his machine very fast,’ said Silver, 62, who aims to distribute his special glasses throughout the developing world. Silver said he wants to provide eyeglasses to more than a billion people with poor eyesight. For starters, he hopes to distribute a million pairs in India over the next year or so.”

Anyone whose eyeglass prescription is out of date understands how convenient it would be to be able to self-adjust his or her glasses to make the world clear again. Of course, vanity affects most of us in the developed world and Silver’s glasses aren’t exactly the height of fashion. However when wearing a pair of Silver’s glasses makes the difference between being able to make a living and having to beg, how they look is the last thing on your mind.

“In the United States, Britain and other wealthy nations, 60 to 70 percent of people wear corrective glasses, Silver said. But in many developing countries, only about 5 percent have glasses because so many people, especially those in rural areas, have little or no access to eye-care professionals. Even if they could visit an eye doctor, the cost of glasses can be more than a month’s wages. This means that many schoolchildren cannot see the blackboard, bus drivers can’t see clearly and others can no longer fish, teach or do other jobs because of failing vision. ‘It’s about education, economics and quality of life,’ Silver said. The glasses, which are made in China, are not sleek. In fact, he acknowledged, ‘detractors call them ugly.’ He said the design can be improved, but the current model looks like something from the back of Woody Allen’s closet — thick dark frames with round lenses.”

For those of you who have visited an optometrist, you were probably placed behind a large machine with interchangeable lenses that was used to find the lens that brought the eye chart into clearest focus. Obviously, that is not how Silver’s system works.

“The glasses work on the principle that the more liquid pumped into a thin sac in the plastic lenses, the stronger the correction. Silver has attached plastic syringes filled with silicone oil on each bow of the glasses; the wearer adds or subtracts the clear liquid with a little dial on the pump until the focus is right. After that adjustment, the syringes are removed and the ‘adaptive glasses’ are ready to go.”

Although the glasses are relatively cheap right now, getting their cost even lower remains a goal for Silver.

“Currently, Silver said, a pair costs about $19, but his hope is to cut that to a few dollars. He has distributed about 30,000 spectacles. The U.S. Department of Defense bought 20,000 pairs to give away to poor people in Africa and Eastern Europe. Those glasses have a small U.S. flag and ‘From the American People’ engraved in small print on one side of the frames. The World Bank and the British government have also helped fund his work.”

It’s often hard to gage the impact of small programs like this. In an earlier blog [Calculating the Worth of Cows], I discuss a Marine program in Iraq where cows are provided to families as a source of income and nourishment. The eyeglass program can be just as important.

“‘There are guys walking down the street in Angola with a smile on their face because for the first time since they were kids they can see their town,’ said Marine Maj. Kevin White. When White, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., was in charge of a military humanitarian aid program in 2005, he read about Silver’s glasses, met him and got approval to buy and distribute them. ‘I am really impressed with what he is doing,’ White said. ‘It’s a noble cause.'”

For people who believe that military personnel only think about how they can blow things up, the cow and eyeglass give-away programs should be eye-opening. In both cases, the programs began because people on the ground saw a need and cared enough to do something about it. That is what impresses me most about Silver’s program — it demonstrates how much impact a single individual can have on the world. Not everyone, however, is happy with the program.

“Silver said there has been some resistance from the eyewear industry. Years ago, one vision company offered a ‘substantial amount of money’ to him if he sold them his technology, but Silver said he declined because he had no assurance that it would be used to bring low-cost glasses to the poor. He said the current business model for the industry that involves optometrists, opticians and labs making custom lenses and frames is to make ‘very high-quality, high-cost products for the developed world.’ He said his ‘lunatic’s dream’ is to say, ‘Hold on, half the world can’t afford that.’ His glasses correct nearsightedness and farsightedness but not astigmatism. Silver stressed they do not replace the need for people to go to an eye professional who can diagnose health problems such as glaucoma, diabetes and high blood pressure. But Mehmood Khan, a business manager and activist who plans to help Silver distribute the glasses in India, said they will change the lives of many people who don’t even realize they could see better: ‘These glasses help people get their eyes back. They are going to make a difference.'”

If Silver can bring down the cost of his glasses to something that the “bottom billion” can afford, he could actually generate even more good by helping create a network of eyeglass distributors. His universe of good works would then extend from those who manufacture the glasses, through those who distribute them, to those who wear them. I suspect that eyeglass repairman would also emerge. The positive effects would then spread as students do better in schools and workers find themselves more productive.

“In his cozy home in Oxford, near the university where he has been for 26 years, the inventor talked about how Henry Ford wanted to make a car that everyone could afford and how he hopes to make eyeglasses accessible to everyone. Near his dining room table he has displayed a patent he got from the U.S. government for his glasses, a project he has been working on for two decades. He has some earlier, clunkier frames and lenses in a wooden cabinet in his home office, ‘his museum,’ as he calls it. For one year, he wore a pair of his own glasses every day. Despite his age, he has never needed reading glasses, which he said might be ‘God’s way of telling me I am doing something good.’ A talkative man with a remarkable memory, Silver said that as the global financial crisis changes the way people live, maybe there won’t be such a focus on making money and having the brightest students head into the world of finance. ‘I feel people are saying, “‘Hold on, there is some real work to do in life,”‘ he said, adding that maybe for his project, ‘the time has come.'”

Clearly, Silver isn’t out to make a fortune as was Henry Ford. His motives are much more in line Muhammad Yunus’ motives. Yunus wanted to make credit available to the poor so that they could help themselves improve their quality of life. Silver appreciates the fact that the “wonders of the world only exist while there are those with the sight to see them.” He hopes that more people than ever will be able to enjoy such wonders. His glasses may be one of those wonders.