On Saturday, February 21, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Education Division in partnership with the Arizona-based nonprofit VisionQuest 20/20 provided an opportunity to demonstrate an innovative vision-screening program to interested tribal and state leaders, and just as important provided Community members free eye exams using this new technology.
The SRPMIC is taking the lead among Arizona tribal communities and has begun to implement an innovative vision-screening tool, the EyeSpy 20/20, utilizing a custom (proprietary) computer software program developed by VisionQuest 20/20. The basis of the screening tool is to test children’s eyesight using video-game technology, which makes vision screening fun and less intimidating to children. The EyeSpy 20/20 software program offers a screening system that can test clearness of vision (visual acuity), depth perception and color vision.
A disturbing fact is that the State of Arizona does not mandate school vision screenings. Most schools do not screen every child, and some schools do not conduct vision screenings at all.
The EyeSpy 20/20 system will generate a printed report that can be sent home to parents of children screened to inform them of whether the child “passed” or is “referred” for a full eye examination.
Many parents and children of the Community came out to Salt River High School to get the free vision screening with the EyeSpy 20/20 system. Every parent left with a written report on the vision status of their child.
Candice Namoki, a Community member, shared, “Both my kids were tested. The test helps me find out where my kids are with their vision. I found the screening interesting; it is something new. It is interesting [to find out] how technology has upgraded from using the eye chart. Using [the new EyeSpy 20/20 program] is a fun way to have a learning experience, through a game-type [format]. It is good for our young children that don’t want to sit and read letters on the eye chart. I think it is good for the Community, and it would be good to do this all over Indian Country. This was a fun experience for my kids.”
The co-founders of VisionQuest, James W. O’Neil, M.D., a board-certified pediatric ophthalmologist from Phoenix, and Richard S. Terendi, an electrical and computer engineer with numerous patents in his field of expertise, are each devoted and driven by the need to improve the care and vision-screening opportunities for children because of their own personal stories.
The National Eye Institute noted that undetected vision disorders are the fourth leading childhood-health issue. Statistics reflect that up to one in four children have a vision problem, and often the parents, teachers and even the child are unaware. It is well known that 80 percent of learning is done visually, and unknown vision disorders are associated with poor reading and negatively impact academic performance. Behavior problems and acting out in class also can be associated with poor vision.
Dr. Cynthia Clary, acting superintendent/ director of education with the Salt River Education Department (SRED) said, “[Tribal leadership] approached our Health and Human Services (HHS) Department, who reached out to our Education Department, and I agreed this would be a perfect place to implement this program. It is going to be a collaborative effort. [Ironically,] We just bought this year one of the equiment components to use with our children in our Early Child Education Center (ECEC). [Now] We plan to implement the full program next school year.
The EyeSpy 20/20 software system can be used as a fully automated HIPAA-compliant data-management system, which is valuable to HHS. The program can collect, report and integrate various information into electronic health and student records systems. The ability to share and review children’s health screening information will help provide a comprehensive review of not only a child’s vision results, but, will also make available BMI information, hearing, diabetic test readings, to identity potentially serious health issues early.
The demonstration session included many local, state and tribal leaders, and it was noticeable how early vision testing impacted many of them. Some recalled manipulating various aspects of vision testing in order to pass, or having no access to vision testing when they were children. Others acknowledged from their own experience that children can “fake” their vision test by memorizing the eye chart or devising other means to pass.
“We are very excited that tribal leadership brought this to our attention, because we are going to be able to screen every child—not just children at Salt River schools, but we have children who are Community members attending Mesa schools, which also is using the same software.” Clary further stated, “Here is what is important. We know that everyone has to see. We can tie [vision] to everything academically. This is going to be very empowering to our parents—they will have knowledge about their children’s [vision status].”
Dr. O’Neil was emphatic when he stated, “It takes partnerships, and it takes people that are forward-thinking and do not want to keep services status quo. Many school districts are overwhelmed by other things (violence, budget and financial issues, etc.) and are not ready to look at this [type of innovative vision screening tool]. This tool will help.”
Why Vision Screening Is So Important
During his welcome, Vice-President Martin Harvier shared his personal experience with his sons’ vision challenges, like the stigma of wearing glasses. Once his son did get glasses, Harvier stated, “My son said to me, ‘I didn’t realize what a mesquite tree leaf really looked like’ … my son said, ‘I really couldn’t see the TV, I just listened really hard’ …. Reading is so important to education, and if you cannot see, you cannot read. With our sister tribes, we are all dealing with a high rate of diabetes. Diabetes affects vision—so checking your vision may show early signs of diabetes [or other aliments]. It is important to get our children’s eyes checked.”
He added further, “The First Things First [a state initiative, most in the room are familiar with], is an important program in our Community. Health professionals say that the time [period] from the age of birth to five years of age is so important in the development of a child’s brain. So again, if a child cannot see, how much of the brain is developing in those early years?”
Michelle Davidson, deputy chief of staff representing Arizona Congresswomen Kyrsten Sinema, shared why Sinema is a strong advocate for vision screening.
“Kristen had visions problems all through school, up until about the age of 15 years. Kristen is practically blind without her glasses, which is why she values being able to screen kids vision [like VisionQuest 20/20].” Davidson added, “Also, Congresswoman Sinema hosted a legislative staff briefing in Washington, D.C., last fall to share this innovative technology.”
Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon’s representative Chuck Gray had a similar personal story: “When I was in first grade, I didn’t know I needed glasses; I thought that is just how it was. By the end of the year, my teacher moved me up to the front row and told my mom, who as a first-time mom didn’t know that I was having vision problems. I was fortunate to find out early, not like some kids who found out later in life.”
Clary shared a story about her child, who had severe eye problems. “As a parent and educator, I felt like a failure. In school [you find out] children learn to compensate. The stories you heard are [examples of] things we are trying to not happen here (at SRPMIC schools).”