Ethan Waugh is a handsome and bright five-year old, eagerly looking forward to kindergarten in the fall. But less than a year ago, he didn’t really enjoy school at all. In fact, Ethan showed little interest in books, drawing, or arts and crafts like other children. His mother, Dawn, was initially puzzled.
Then, when Ethan began to withdraw further from group activities at his preschool and play apart from other children, she grew more concerned. Although professionals identified some learning delays, Ethan’s parents also heard this one: Oh, every child is different! So, it came as a complete surprise when a free vision screening offered at their son’s Preschool changed his life.
WHEELS, short for Where Healthy Eyes and Ears Lead to Success, is a mobile vision and hearing screening program designed to help kids like Ethan. Developed by Prevent Blindness Mid- Atlantic (PBMA) and funded by MEDARVA Healthcare, WHEELS serves Greater Richmond and is expected to reach between 3,500 and 4,000 children this school year, identifying vision and hearing challenges with specialized screening equipment.
Why is this good news for kids and families? Research has shown that 80 percent of learning in a normal classroom is through vision, while auditory learning accounts for 75 percent of the information a child takes in during a typical school day. Tim Gresham, president and CEO of PBMA, stresses the importance of making sure all children are prepared to take advantage of every early learning opportunity. “The WHEELS mission is to reach as many children as possible and identify those With vision or hearing impairment before they start kindergarten,” Gresham said.
He added that the data from the program, in operation for three years now, provides evidence to support what PBMA has believed for years: Many area Children are starting kindergarten with undiagnosed and unaddressed challenges. “In addition to identifying several hundred children with vision and hearing problems, the screenings and follow-up protocol have confirmed that about three percent of children [screened] have amblyopia, which can lead to functional blindness if not detected early,” Gresham said. “Furthermore, about 22 percent of the four-year-olds who were tested through WHEELS had vision problems that required glasses for correction.”
While WHEELS does not provide specific doctor referrals for vision or the hearing tests it conducts, the staff and its medical director, Natario Couser, MD, are available to answer questions. And, says Gresham, “Prevent Blindness Mid-Atlantic also provides vouchers for free P eye exams and glasses to those children qualifying as needing financial assistance, allowing the children to begin kindergarten with all the benefits of good sight.”
The WHEELS program uses the latest technology, the plus optiX vision-screening device. Unlike traditional eye chart screenings, this device measures a child’s Vision within one to five seconds and there is no subjective interpretation needed by the screener. Children are not asked to read or identify objects or letters. Although most preschool-aged children receive eye checks at the pediatrician’s office, these are primarily designed to identify what most clinicians consider obvious problems and nearsightedness. In a very short time, however, WHEELS can detect hidden problems such as astigmatism and anisometropia, where one eye sees differently than the other. And most importantly, parents receive their child’s results the same day.
Last spring, Ethan received a vision screening along with about 60 other children in his preschool. That day, WHEELS sent home the results, which indicated hyperopia, or farsightedness. Although some farsightedness is common in preschool-aged children, Ethan’s results fell outside the normal range. After a follow-up visit with an ophthalmologist, Ethan’s diagnosis was severe farsightedness. He was fitted with a new pair of glasses, which, according to his mom resulted in a new outlook on the world.
According to Dr. Couser, even with vigilant parents, attentive teachers, and conscientious professionals, vision problems in young children are not easily identified. Sometimes concerns about vision at an early age are dismissed since the child’s eyesight is still developing. WHEELS technology can help identify some of these issues before they progress into long-term vision problems. As Dawn said of Ethan’s diagnosis, “If we had ignored it, he could have developed central blindness.” Today, Dawn says many of her son’s learning delays have disappeared, and in just six months, he seems to have caught up with his peers both academically and socially.
Alison Markow, manager of children’s programs for PBMA and WHEELS, says to meet its goal of helping as many kids as possible, WHEELS regularly seeks feedback from childcare directors, educators, and parents. Staff members are trained and certified on all equipment and receive national certification in children’s vision screening through PBMA. “The emphasis is on a comprehensive program to benefit children in Central Virginia,” Markow says.
Darie Lee is head of the Child Enrichment Center at Mount Vernon Baptist Church. “This is the third year we’ve had WHEELS,” says Lee, adding that Families have come to rely on the program. “Parents know it and ask about it.”
Barbara Booth, director of the Child Development Center at Huguenot Road Baptist Church says they will continue to use the program as long as there is funding. She says WHEELS made it convenient to participate by preparing the school for the process with a curriculum, video, and consent forms. On the day of the screening, the children miss minimal class time.
Sara Logwood of Henrico County was four when she was screened by the WHEELS program in 2011. Her mother, who worked at the preschool where the program had been offered, did not expect Sara to be diagnosed with a vision problem. However, Sara did receive a referral for anisometropia. In Sara’s case, one eye was farsighted, and like Ethan, she needed glasses. Her mother said the day Sara put on the glasses, even before they left the parking lot, the little girl commented that “things looked clearer.”
As Markow says, “Children will accommodate. They won’t tell you they can’t see because they don’t know what’s normal.” Yet, according to her, one in four children has a vision impairment that could affect their ability to learn.
About Sara’s diagnosis, her mother says, “I still wouldn’t know. Things looked blurry to her, but that was normal for her.” Sara is now in first grade and her mother is extremely grateful for the screening. “I’m a big advocate for WHEELS.”
Beyond the WHEELS program, however, both Markow and Gresham say the most important thing is for parents to make sure their children are equipped to learn. Says Gresham, “Whether or not your child’s preschool or childcare is part of this valuable program, it’s absolutely crucial to have their vision checked.”
For more information about PBMA’s programs, please visit wheelspbma.org.