A struggle for better vision In need: Steuart Hill Elementary students receive the eye exams they need, but poverty prevents many from getting needed glasses.

March 18, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

All they needed were eyeglasses.

Bobby Jones' eyes burned. Kayla Eaton kept getting headaches. Vernon Weathers misbehaved in class. Brittany Hazelwood struggled to see the blackboard.

They were like hundreds of other schoolchildren with vision problems, except these students at West Baltimore's Steuart Hill Elementary School were the lucky ones.

An ad hoc group of volunteers teamed to bring eye care and glasses right into the school.

But the students have lost or broken most of their glasses, and many parents couldn't or didn't replace them. Poverty turned what should have been a simple task into an almost impossible feat.

"I wish I could get some more glasses," Bobby said wistfully. The 7-year-old broke his on the playground in November.

Just one year after 30 of the Steuart Hill youngsters were given glasses, only five still had them.

Other children never got glasses, because even though they were covered by Medicaid, their parents didn't get the prescriptions filled, said Dr. Mark W. Preslan of the University of Maryland Medical Center.

His findings, reported last week to the American Academy of Pediatric Ophthalmology, show how health care often becomes a low priority in disadvantaged families.

Some parents couldn't read notices sent home about their child's vision problem. Most of the families are at or near the poverty level, and many notices never reached them because they had moved or been evicted. Even many of those with health insurance failed to get glasses because some parents were neglectful or addicted to drugs.

"I'm just not sure we have the resources anywhere to deal with these problems," said Dr. Preslan.

Hundreds of city children who fail eye screenings are hurt by their families' failure to respond. According to the Baltimore City Health Department, only 13.1 percent, or 371, of the 2,833 students identified as having vision problems last year received documented medical follow-up.

"How can we expect these little people to achieve if they can't see?" asked Patricia Sheafor, coordinator of the Baltimore Vision Screening Project at Steuart Hill.

Part of the difficulty can be traced to a lack of concern about vision. Experts say that even parents who are financially well-off often dismiss screening results.

But one in every 20 children ages 3 to 5 has a vision problem, a proportion that increases to one in four among older children. The common conditions that afflict them amblyopia, or lazy eye; and strabismus, or crossed eyes are easier to correct the earlier treatment begins. If ignored, a condition like lazy eye can leave the child legally blind in one eye.

Vision care is particularly significant for the Steuart Hill children. Dr. Preslan's research found the students have a higher incidence of common eye conditions, possibly because more were born prematurely or had mothers who received poor prenatal care.

Without glasses, children struggle in school, lose self-esteem and act out.

Vernon, 7, calmed down in the classroom once he got his glasses. His mother thinks he was frustrated.

But during a trip last summer to visit grandparents, Vernon lost his glasses. His mother said she had no insurance and little money to replace them.

"I'm a single parent. I had to make sure we had a roof over our heads and lights. I knew they [the glasses] were important," Genice Lawson said. "It worried me, but I had to act like it was fine."

One first-grader whose weak tongue prevents her from speaking clearly was doubly handicapped by an unnoticed vision problem. After Tracy Luster, 7, was screened and got glasses last year, Mrs. Sheafor said, she became a "chatterbox."

Peering out over her pink-tinted frames recently, Tracy studied the typewriterlike device she uses to communicate. She pushed a button in answer to a question, and a voice from the machine said, "Things looked fuzzy."

Watching her, Mrs. Sheafor wishes they had been able to act sooner. "I can't help but feel she was impacted by not having glasses two years earlier. What appeared to be painful shyness may have been because she couldn't tell if you were mad or what your face was doing," she said.

"Many kids have complex problems. If having glasses facilitates their learning, it seems like something so simple and it turns out not to be."

Despite the setbacks, Mrs. Sheafor and others plan to press ahead. They work with the Maryland Society for Sight, which does the screenings and sells glasses to uninsured children for $5. In three years of work at Steuart Hill, they've already posted a follow-up rate many times greater between 80 percent and 100 percent than other city schools, mostly because they bring services to the children.

Recently, a volunteer optician helped students pick out their first pairs of frames.

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