If you have extremely poor peripheral vision, you may qualify as being legally blind and be eligible for Social Security disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA details how much of a decrease in your peripheral vision you must have for it to qualify as a disability that prevents you from working, and thus makes you eligible for disability benefits. To be considered for disability under peripheral vision loss, you will need to have a visual field test, which is not part of a routine eye examination.
Peripheral vision is often decreased as a result of glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and other types of peripheral retinal disease. In addition, strokes, brain tumors, and trauma to the brain can cause hemianopia, a specific type of peripheral vision loss where half of the visual field is visible. If you have any of these conditions, your doctor should do a visual field test. Loss in peripheral vision can occur along with or independently of central visual acuity loss (how well you can see straight ahead).
Social Security Requirements for Visual Field Loss
The SSA's "blue book" of impairment listings states the requirements for being granted disability benefits for a contraction (decrease) of your visual field (the official term for peripheral vision). First, the SSA requires a physical examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist for a visual field efficiency test.
Visual Field Test
A visual field test (perimetry) is painless and simple. The doctor will use a perimeter, either an automated Humphrey Field Analyzer or Octopus, or a manual Goldmann perimeter. You don’t have to have your eyes dilated, so no drops are necessary. During the test, you put your chin on a chinrest and look straight ahead into a machine. Every time you notice a flash of light somewhere in your field of vision, you click a button. Sometimes, the lights are bright, and sometimes they are dim. They occur randomly all around and sometimes are close to the center to make sure you are concentrating.
As you respond during the test, your results are mapped according to the location and intensity of the flashes of light, to measure the scope of your vision. The test measures how many degrees you can see from a central point of fixation.
Visual Field Efficiency Standard
To meet the SSA’s required severity for contraction (decrease) of visual fields (listing 2.03), you must have test results that equal one of the following, in the better eye:
- visual field efficiency of 20% or less
- widest diameter of the visual field no more than 20 degrees from the point of fixation, or
- mean deviation of -22 or worse, measured by automated static threshold perimetry.
If you have good peripheral vision in one eye, you won’t qualify for disability benefits.
If you don’t qualify for disability benefits under contraction of visual fields (poor peripheral vision) alone, you might be able to qualify if you are also nearsighted (that is, if you have poor visual acuity). Visual efficiency is a percentage that combines both your visual field efficiency (peripheral vision) and your central visual acuity (straight-ahead vision). The SSA is interested in your visual efficiency in your better eye only.
To determine your percentage of visual efficiency, you’ll need to know your visual acuity (for example, 20/50) in your better eye. Next, your visual acuity must be converted to a percentage, called your central visual efficiency, according to the approximations in the chart below:
|Visual Acuity||Central Visual Efficiency|
You multiply your percentage of central visual efficiency (straight-ahead vision) by your percentage of visual field efficiency (peripheral vision) to come up with a combined percentage for overall visual efficiency. For instance, if your visual acuity is 20/100 in your better eye, that’s 50% central visual efficiency. If your visual field efficiency is 40%, you would multiply 50% times 40% to come up with a combined visual efficiency of 20%.
To meet the SSA’s published standard for loss of visual efficiency (listing 2.04), the visual efficiency in your better eye, after best correction, must be 20% or worse.
Vision Loss Affecting Your Functional Capacity
If you don’t qualify for disability benefits under the SSA’s requirements for poor visual acuity, decrease in visual fields (peripheral vision), or a combination of the two, as the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your peripheral vision loss (and any other symptoms) on your capacity to do daily activities and your regular work. If you can’t do your regular job, the SSA will then determine whether there is any kind of work you could do. For more information, see our article on disability benefits for reduced visual functioning.
Starting a Disability Claim for Vision Loss
Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability (SSI and/or SSDI). When you fill out your application, include both how your loss of peripheral vision affects your life outside of work and how it impairs your ability to work.
If you meet the SSA’s listing, above, for contraction of visual fields, you are considered legally blind. In some states, legally blind applicants receive a higher state supplement to their SSI payment than nonblind disabled people. In addition, you can work and receive up to $1,640 per month (in 2011) and still receive disability benefits without your work being considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) by the SSA (this is higher than the limit of $1,000 per month that applies to nonblind disabled workers).