Legal Blindness: A Resource Guide

Older woman covering one eye and looking at letters on vision test chart



You’ve heard some people say they’re “legally blind” — when, in reality, they do have some vision. What does the phrase really mean? If you or someone you care about has seriously impaired vision, you’ll want to learn specifics. Once you start to explore legal blindness, the term emerges as part of a wide and closely calibrated spectrum of visual impairment.

This guide differentiates legal blindness from other terms that describe varying levels of visual impairment. Information also includes causes and categories, as well as criteria and methods for establishing legally blind status according to federal regulations. The guide also details issues affecting legally blind people, explores resources available to them, and provides links to access those resources and services.

A thorough understanding of legal blindness and the regulations surrounding it can make it easier for legally blind people and their advocates to navigate governmental programs designed to offer aid. It can also help others understand the concerns and issues that legally blind people face every day.

Statistics and Implications of Legal Blindness


Visual impairment encompasses many conditions, describing both people who are blind and people with low vision. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 3.3 million Americans aged 40 years and older are legally blind or functioning with some degree of impaired vision. Only about 15% of all individuals with eye disorders are totally blind (meaning they can't see anything with either eye); the other 85% have some remaining sight. Many people with severely reduced vision can still perceive the difference between light and dark or discern the general source or direction of a light. Most people determined legally blind still have some usable vision, according to the American Foundation for the Blind

This usable vision can be characterized as low vision, a term which most eye care professionals use to describe reduced vision that permanently interferes with a person’s daily activities and cannot be corrected with regular glasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery. 

Legal blindness is a definition used by the United States Social Security Administration when determining a person’s level of disability and their eligibility to receive benefits and social services. The term is not a functional definition; rather, it describes an individual’s numerical results on particular vision tests.

Definition of Legal Blindness

The U.S. Social Security Administration’s definition of legal blindness — also referred to as “statutory blindness” — can be found in the text of the Social Security Administration’s “blue book” on Disability Evaluation Under Social Security, Section 2: Special Senses and Speech, and reads as follows:

2. Statutory blindness is blindness as defined in sections 216(i)(1) and 1614(a)(2) of the Social Security Act.

2a. The Act defines blindness as central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of a correcting lens. We use your best-corrected central visual acuity for distance in the better eye when we determine if this definition is met. (For visual acuity testing requirements, see 2.00A5.) 

2b. The Act also provides that an eye that has a visual field limitation such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees is considered as having a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less. (For visual field testing requirements, see 2.00A6.) 

2c. You have statutory blindness only if your visual disorder meets the criteria of 2.02 or 2.03A [see below]. You do not have statutory blindness if your visual disorder medically equals the criteria of 2.02 or 2.03A or meets or medically equals the criteria of 2.03B, 2.03C, 2.04A, or 2.04B because your disability is based on criteria other than those in the statutory definition of blindness.

2.02: Loss of Central Visual Acuity. Remaining vision in the better eye after best correction is 20/200 or less.

2.03: Contraction of the Visual Field in the better eye, with:
A. The widest diameter subtending an angle around the point of fixation no greater than 20 degrees.

2.04: Loss of Visual Efficiency, or visual impairment, in the better eye:
A. A visual efficiency percentage of 20 or less after best correction; OR
B. A visual impairment value of 1.00 or greater after best correction.

Details for criteria and measurement of an individual’s visual acuity and visual field are explained in more detail in a later section of this guide.

Terms Relating to Legal Blindness

In order to fully understand the “legal-ese” used within the Social Security Act definition, it is necessary to understand many of the terms related to its wording. Below are definitions provided by the American Foundation for the Blind to explain standard terms associated with visual impairment:

  • Functional limitation refers to the interaction of a person’s visual functioning and their ability to perform the activities of daily living, such as reading, safe pedestrian travel, self-care, cooking, and recreational activities.
  • Legal (or statutory) blindness is a level of vision loss that falls within a specified range of impairment measured by vision tests administered to determine a person’s eligibility for Social Security disability benefits. 
  • Low vision is measurable but impaired vision that prevents someone from (or creates difficulty with) accomplishing daily visual tasks, even with prescribed corrective lenses. 
  • Total blindness is the complete lack of light perception and form perception, an inability to see anything with either eye. It is officially recorded as NLP, an abbreviation for "no light perception."
  • Vision loss and Visual impairment or disability are all terms that refer to the conditions experienced by individuals who have trouble seeing, as well as to individuals who are blind or unable to see at all.
  • Visual acuity is the measure of an eye's ability to distinguish an object’s details and shape. Acuity is typically assessed by the smallest identifiable object that can be seen at a specified distance. Typical visual acuity is measured as 20/20.
  • Visual field is the entire area that an eye can see when it is directed forward, including the part that can be seen with peripheral vision. Testing maps the visual field of each eye individually and can detect blind spots and subtle areas of dimmed vision.


What’s the Difference?


How Legal Blindness Differs from Vision Impairment and Low Vision

  • Visual impairment is a general term describing a vast range of visual functioning, from correctable vision through total blindness. Factors influencing visual impairment can include sensitivity to light, contrast, or glare, or trouble adapting to light/dark conditions.
  • Low vision is uncorrectable vision loss that interferes with day-to-day activities. People with low vision often can still do their daily visual tasks by using compensation strategies, environmental modifications like tactile labeling, and/or assistive devices such as magnifiers or screen readers. 
  • Legal blindness describes an individual’s results on particular vision tests used to determine a person’s level of disability. The Social Security Administration stipulates that to be considered legally blind, you must show medically diagnosed central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction, or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. That means that if glasses or contact lenses can only improve your vision to 20/200 or worse, you fit the definition of legally blind.

When the outcomes of these tests result in an affirmative determination of legal blindness, that makes you eligible to receive sight-related disability benefits, tax exemptions, and other social service programs offered by the U.S. government. The exact parameters of the SSA’s criteria for legal blindness are examined in detail below.

Pair of black glasses with extremely thick lenses


Criteria for Establishing Legal Blindness


Who Sets the Criteria?

The U.S. Social Security Administration is responsible for devising the term legal blindness as well as the criteria and methods of testing to determine who is legally blind. Many state governments accept the SSA’s baseline for their own programs, but some use different benchmarks. 

Charts Used for Testing

How does the eye care industry test for legal blindness? The SSA wording most often references the Snellen eye chart as the basis of testing for visual acuity, but other types of charts can be used, including the Bailey-Lovie chart and the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study, or ETDRS chart

The Snellen eye chart is the familiar “pyramid” of capital letters used by clinicians to measure a person's distance visual acuity. On the chart, 11 lines or rows of block letters are printed in a standardized gradation of sizes, beginning with a large single letter on the top row. The number of letters on each row increases moving from top to bottom, while the size of the letters progressively decreases on each subsequent row. 

Here’s how eye doctors test vision with the Snellen chart: You read each row from a fixed distance, usually 20 feet. Each row on the chart corresponds with a distance ratio whose basis is 20 feet (the first “20” in the fraction). If you can read letters in row 8 from 20 feet away while wearing your regular glasses or contact lenses, the doctor records your visual acuity as 20/20 with best correction. If the smallest print you can read are the letters in row 3 from 20 feet away while wearing your regular glasses or contact lenses, the doctor records your visual acuity as 20/70 with best correction.

Basic SSA Requirements for Establishing Legal Blindness

The Social Security Administration’s “blue book” clarifies its baseline criteria for legal blindness this way: 

If your visual acuity is measured with one of these charts, and you cannot read any of the letters on the 20/100 line, the SSA will determine that you have statutory blindness based on a visual acuity of 20/200 or less. For example, if your best-corrected central visual acuity for distance in the better eye is 20/160 using an ETDRS chart, we will find that you have statutory blindness. 

Regardless of the type of test chart used, you do not have statutory blindness if you can read at least one letter on the 20/100 line. For example, if your best-corrected central visual acuity for distance in the better eye is 20/125+1 using an ETDRS chart, we will find that you do not have statutory blindness because you are able to read one letter on the 20/100 line.

Categories of Legal Blindness Explained

The SSA wording is very specific about the conditions it requires to measure legal blindness — but what do these phrases mean in plain English? 

  • Legally blind due to “reduced central visual acuity of 20/200 or less”
  • Legally blind due to “visual field restriction of no greater than 20 degrees”

The website AllAboutVision.com offers some helpful translation of SSA language.

Legally blind due to reduced central visual acuity
Central vision is the part of your eyesight you use to look directly at objects. Your central visual acuity is your eye's capacity to identify and distinguish the details and shape of an object you’re looking directly at.

If a Snellen eye chart has measured your central visual acuity as 20/20, this means the smallest letters you can discern from a distance of 20 feet (the first number in the fraction) are the same size as the smallest letters a person with historically defined "normal vision" can see at a distance of 20 feet (the second number in the fraction).

But if you have 20/200 central visual acuity, the smallest letters you can identify from a distance of 20 feet are the size of the smallest letters a person with historically defined "normal vision" can see from a much greater distance — 200 feet, in this case. So at this level, your visual acuity is much less (10 times worse, in fact) than that of a normally sighted person.

Important: In order for you to be considered legally blind, your visual acuity must be 20/200 or worse in your better eye while you are wearing corrective lenses. So how poorly you see without your eyeglasses or contact lenses has nothing to do with determining legal blindness. As long as glasses or contacts can correct the vision in your best-seeing eye to better than 20/200, you are not considered legally blind, no matter what degree of nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism you have.


Legally blind due to visual field restriction
Visual field, roughly put, is how widely you can see objects. While visual acuity tests measure your central vision and its clarity, visual field tests measure what you can see to the edges of your sight, or peripheral vision. For example, some people can see the smallest letters on an eye chart, but can't see a person standing right next to them due to poor peripheral vision. These people have a visual field restriction.

You rely on peripheral vision for critical activities like driving a car or crossing a busy street. The importance of a wide visual field becomes especially apparent when you consider how often and how heavily you rely on it the course of every day.

Visual field tests are totally different from tests of central visual acuity. Your eye doctor’s goal when testing your peripheral vision is to determine whether you have a standard field of vision without abnormal blind spots or any extreme narrowing of peripheral vision.

A person with normal peripheral vision has a maximum lateral field of view with an angle of almost 180 degrees, meaning that distant objects located directly to the right or left of the person are still visible to them at the same time. Humans’ normal vertical field of view is not as expansive as the lateral; it encompasses an angle of about 135 degrees instead, meaning that objects directly above our heads and at our feet are not visible to us at the same time.

If visual field testing reveals that your peripheral vision is severely restricted to only 20 degrees (out of the possible 180 degrees lateral or 135 degrees vertical), you are considered by the SSA to be legally blind. This limited field of view is often called tunnel vision, and it limits your vision functionally — even if you can read the 20/20 line on an eye chart.


Which Criteria Should You Consult?

Since the term legal blindness and corresponding testing criteria were created to satisfy Social Security disability requirements, the Social Security Administration is the primary body that makes the final determination of a person’s legal blindness. 

However, not all state governments require a person to be designated legally blind by the federal government to receive benefits from state programs. States that offer pensions, cash stipends, or other financial disability benefits for blind people will specify in their own guidelines whether they accept the SSA’s determination of a person’s legal blindness, or if additional testing and results are required. 

More information about accessing programs and benefits offered by federal and state governments is offered in a subsequent section of this guide.



Causes of Legal Blindness

At this point, you may naturally wonder about the conditions that can cause blindness. People are born with visual disabilities or become legally blind during their lifetimes in a variety of ways. There are four leading medical causes of legal blindness in the United States.

Cataracts 

A cataract is a clouding of the eye's natural lens, which lies behind the iris and pupil. The lens is made mostly of water and protein; some of these proteins may clump together as an eye ages, clouding at first a small area of the lens, then growing over time. 

At first you may notice that your vision is slightly blurry or cloudy. Light may seem too bright or glaring, or colors may not appear as bright as they once did. Visual aids may temporarily improve your vision — but once a cataract has progressed enough to seriously impair your vision and affect your daily life, removal surgery is a simple, relatively painless procedure.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration 

The eye’s macula is the central area of the retina that lets us read, drive, recognize faces, use a computer, and see things in fine detail. With age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, the macula deteriorates and “blind spots” appear, obscuring objects in a person’s central vision. 

There are two forms of AMD: dry/non-neovascular, or wet/neovascular. Most patients are diagnosed with dry AMD in an early stage of the disease. Yellowish spots accumulate in the macula, signaling deposits of debris from deteriorating tissue. Vision loss is usually less severe in this stage. About 10 percent of cases advance to the more damaging form, wet/neovascular AMD. The body’s attempt to grow new blood vessels and bring more nutrients and oxygen to the retina can misfire, leaking blood and fluid instead. This causes scarring and permanent damage to retinal cells, which die off and deteriorate, creating deposits and blind spots.

Diabetic Retinopathy 

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition in which type 1 or type 2 diabetes causes damage to the eye’s retina. Abnormal spikes in blood sugar typical with either type of diabetes are the culprit here. Chronically high amounts of sugar in the blood can clog or damage blood vessels surrounding light-sensitive photoreceptor cells in the retina. 

In the early stage, damaged blood vessels can leak fluid or bleed into the retina, forming deposits and causing swelling. In the most extreme stages, symptoms can include the formation of abnormal blood vessels of the optic nerve, hemorrhages in the vitreous humor or front of the retina, and blockages in blood flow that cut off oxygen. Any of these symptoms can bring serious vision problems and eventually lead to blindness.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is associated with ocular hypertension, where pressure inside the eye is higher than normal. Untreated glaucoma can damage the optic nerve, causing loss of peripheral vision and potentially leading to blindness. Many cases show no symptoms early on, so roughly half of Americans with glaucoma don't know they have it. Regular testing is important to catch and monitor glaucoma.

The numerous types of glaucoma can be broken down into two major categories — open-angle and acute- or narrow-angle — both of which relate to the drainage angle for the fluid continually produced inside the eye. Most types of glaucoma present no symptoms at first, progressing until the optic nerve already has been irreversibly damaged. Permanent vision loss can be the result. 

With narrow-angle glaucoma, intense symptoms can occur suddenly, such as blurred vision, the appearance of halos around lights, severe eye pain, nausea, and vomiting. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should visit the emergency room or see an eye care practitioner immediately to prevent permanent loss of vision.

Other Causes

Other conditions which can cause legal blindness include optic neuritis and neuropathy, or inflammation of the optic nerve, which is common in people who have multiple sclerosis, or congenital conditions such as retinopathy of prematurity, congenital cataracts, and infantile glaucoma. Keratoconus, a gradual thinning of the cornea, also can cause severe vision loss to the point of legal blindness.

Issues Affecting Legally Blind People

People who are legally blind must devote extra thought and planning to daily tasks to achieve the greatest mobility and independence possible. Fortunately, many programs and technologies have been developed to make daily life easier for legally blind people.

Medical Care, Rehabilitation, and Access to Medical Information

People with visual impairment often face obstacles to getting health care services and information. But because visual impairment can be caused by or related to diseases like multiple sclerosis, meningitis, diabetes, etc., consistent health care is important. 

Rehabilitation services and other medical support for many people with visual impairment are offered across the country by state governments or nonprofit agencies. See VisionAware’s Directory of Services to search for support programs in your state. 

Additionally, people who are legally blind or have low vision are guaranteed a federally protected right to receive health care information in formats they can read or hear, such as Braille, large print, audio, email, or digital documents accessed with a screen reader. Insist on receiving test results, prescriptions, physical therapy instructions, explanations of benefits, and other health-related information in a timely and private manner, in a format that works for you.

Emotional Support and Counseling

Visual impairment can present emotional difficulties. Anxiety, depression, phobias, PTSD, and even suicidal thoughts are common emotional repercussions for people who lose their vision. Even for those who have spent their entire lives without sight, maneuvering in a sighted world can take an emotional toll. Finding sources of emotional support and counseling is imperative. 

VisionAware’s website offers an extensive section devoted to emotional support and the implications of coping with vision loss. Other groups and resources are also available online — such as All About Vision’s resource page — and you can search the National Federation of the Blind’s website by state for emotional health resources in your area.  

Navigating Inside and Outside

Moving through the world requires a set of basic skills that every person with low vision or legal blindness must master. Whether it’s simply walking from room to room or taking public transit downtown for an appointment, orientation and mobility form the basis for moving around safely. Orientation lets you know where you are and where you want to go; mobility allows you to travel safely without tripping or falling, whether or not you use a cane or other device. 

Many techniques enhance outdoor navigation skills: Developing your senses to take advantage of environmental clues, analyzing traffic patterns and crossing streets, asking and following directions, or learning human guide techniques to walk with a sighted person. These and other skills can be useful during activities such as going to the laundromat or grocery shopping.

Health and Fitness 

An important aspect of staying healthy is managing medications correctly. VisionAware provides a comprehensive section on medication management that includes tips for identifying, labeling and organizing, scheduling, and correctly measuring dosages, among many other features.

Exercise is another basic health and fitness necessity. People with visual impairments can do nearly every form of exercise and sports, with the permission of doctors and eye doctors, and sometimes with the help of modifications or assistive equipment. The flexibility, balance, sensory development, mobility, and confidence that come with regular exercise can be particularly beneficial for legally blind people.

Self-Sufficiency and Self-Care

The basics of self-care include hygiene, grooming, and dressing yourself. For the legally blind, taking care of these tasks effectively requires forethought, labeling, and organization of products, clothes and personal items. Some strategy is also required to perform tasks such as brushing teeth; shaving; grooming nails; or applying makeup.

Choosing the right labeling system for your needs will help you with identifying and distinguish hygiene and makeup products as well as organizing clothes and accessories. Braille, color-matching, shape identifier, even voice-labeling systems are available to help you label and distinguish items.

Housekeeping

A well laid-out and organized home is easier to keep clean and move around in comfortably. Most household work can be made easier by storing the most-used items close at hand in each room, eliminating clutter, and keeping all items readily identifiable with labels. Practical tips for storing and labeling household appliances, cleaning products, and other items can be found in several spots on VisionAware’s Essential Skills pages. 

Specific methods make house cleaning easier for people with visual impairments, including methods to minimize mess in frequently used areas and locating techniques to identify where the mess is and how best to contain it. Numerous tips also can make cleaning surfaces, windows, floors, and dishes quicker, safer and more effective.

Food Preparation and Eating

Combining the capabilities of fire, water, electricity, and sharp blades in one room, the kitchen can be the most hazardous room in the house for sighted and legally blind people, alike. The difference is, people with visual impairment must go beyond the precautions of sighted people, making greater preparations and modifications to cook safely and efficiently in their kitchens. 

Specific safe cooking techniques can be found at VisionAware, from chopping and peeling fruits and vegetables to measuring and pouring liquids, to baking and testing food for doneness. And once the food is cooked and on the table, several eating techniques such as navigating a place setting and locating food on a plate can make a meal more pleasant for legally blind people.

Working and Communication 

If you’ve lost your sight, communicating probably used to seem a lot easier; even if you were born legally blind, you’re still familiar with the obstacles that communication can present. The good news is that there are many practices and new technology that can make communicating quicker and easier.

Reading

Losing the ability to read as usual can be frightening. But fear not: Technology offers ever-expanding options for visually impaired people, mixing and matching reading enhancements with listening capabilities to deliver information in new, workable ways. These fall into a few categories:

Writing and using computers

The rise of computers and texting has made typing on a keyboard the main way that most people write, so most of us only need to keep our handwriting in good enough shape to sign our signatures and jot down notes. 

That’s good news, as computers now are routinely augmented with assistive technology that opens up built-in features and the internet to visually impaired users. Tech essentials such as screen magnifiers, screen readers, or large-print keyboards make computing navigable and functional for legally blind users or those with low vision.

Using smartphones

If the disappearance of landline telephones coincided with the loss of your vision to discourage you from ever using a phone again, now is the time to reconsider. Technology for smartphones (not to mention tablets) has advanced to a point where visually impaired people can use and enjoy the same apps and capabilities as sighted users. Features such as screen magnification, font adjustment, text-to-voice, screen readers, and others make communication and research via smartphone a virtual breeze.

Using Money and Managing Finances 

With technology, the way we use money has changed, too. Fewer people use cash for daily purchases. In fact, at some places, cashiers seem unprepared if you present cash. However, learning how to carry, identify and pay with bills and coins is still a necessary skill — only now, you also need to keep track of bank and credit cards, as well as payment apps, if you use them. 

Online banking has made financial record-keeping easier for people with visual impairments, and paying bills online can ease your mind monthly (once you’ve gone through the initial setup process for each account). A screen reader or other talking software can read your monthly bank statements and bills to you; or you have the right to request that your bank and utilities send you statements in large print or Braille, if you prefer.


Resources and Benefits Available for Legally Blind People

When a person is officially designated unable to work due to legal blindness, they become eligible for special services and assistance. The Social Security Administration provides disability benefits, and there are federal and state tax deductions available. A variety of private, nonprofit, foundation, and other non-governmental organizations and programs also make it easier for visually impaired people to live well.


Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Administration offers benefits to legally blind people under two programs: the Social Security Disability Insurance program and the Supplemental Security Income program. Medical criteria for blindness are the same for each program; other rules are different. 

In some cases, if an applicant’s vision doesn’t meet the SSA definition of legal blindness, the person may still qualify for disability benefits if their vision problems, alone or combined with other health problems, still prevent them from working. Read more in the SSA booklet, If You’re Blind or Have Low Vision — How We Can Help.

Social Security Disability Insurance Program

The SSDI program can pay you monthly benefits if you submit medically certified proof of legal blindness as defined by aforementioned SSA criteria, and if you’ve paid Social Security taxes during a long enough period of work. You can apply for disability benefits in person at your local Social Security office or online at the SSA’s Apply Online for Disability Benefits page.  

When applying, you’re required to submit copies of all medical records related to your disability. These should include results of medical exams, your diagnosis, a history of any hospitalizations, and a personal statement from your eye doctor testifying to your condition and the limitations it causes. You’re also required to submit documentation of your employment history and tax or financial records. 

See the SSA application page for a listing of specific documentation you’ll need to supply. If you apply online, you may be able to submit both your medical and financial documents electronically.

Supplemental Security Income Program 

The SSI program is based on financial need and intended to help low-income individuals and families. For SSI benefit payments based on disability and blindness, you don’t need to have worked, but your monthly income and resources must fall under a certain dollar amount. Whether you’re eligible to receive SSI benefits depends on both your income and resources. 

Income 

Income includes wages, Social Security benefits, pensions, and other money you receive; it also includes tangible assets like shelter and food. The amount of income you can bring in each month and still receive SSI benefits partly depends on where you live. Contact the SSA or consult the website to find out the income limits in your state

NOTE: If you’re disabled but still working, the SSA doesn’t count against your limit the wages you use for things that help you continue to work. For example, if you’re legally blind and you use wages to pay for transportation to and from work, the amount of your wages used to pay transportation costs isn’t counted as income. Also, some of the income you use (or save) for training, or to buy assistive items that help you work, may not count. Find more information on the SSA website

Resources

The things you own, known as resources, can be counted by the SSA when deciding if you qualify for SSI benefits. These include real estate holdings, bank account balances, cash, stocks, and bonds. You may be able to get SSI if your resources are worth $2,000 or less. A couple may be able to get SSI if their collective resources are worth $3,000 or less. 

The SSA doesn’t count everything you own in deciding whether you have too many resources to qualify for SSI benefits. These assets do not count against your limit: 

  • The home and land where you live; Life insurance policies with a face value of $1,500 or less; 
  • Your car (usually); 
  • Burial plots for you and immediate family members; and 
  • Up to $1,500 in burial funds each for you and your spouse.

Find more application criteria and answers to questions about the SSI program in the SSA booklet, Supplemental Security Income.

After you submit an application for either the Social Security Disability Insurance program or the Supplemental Security Income program, you should receive a decision within three to six months. During the intervening time, you can find answers to questions and check the status of your application on the SSA website. If you’re approved to receive benefits, a “notice of award” will provide all the necessary information about receiving your first disability payment.

Disability Tax Benefits

If you have been ruled legally blind, you may qualify for tax deductions, income exclusions, or credits that the Internal Revenue Service affords to people with disabilities. Each subsection below details the wording pertinent to blindness/disability as it appears in each designated Internal Revenue Service publication. An overview of and links to these topics can be found in IRS Pub. No. 3966: Living and Working with Disabilities


Higher Standard Deduction for Blindness
IRS Pub. 501: Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information

If you are legally blind on the last day of the year and you don't itemize deductions, you are entitled to a higher standard deduction than are those without a disability. 

If you aren't totally blind, you’re required to obtain a certified statement from an ophthalmologist or optometrist that you still meet the Social Security Administration’s criteria for legal blindness. If your eye condition isn't likely to improve beyond these limits, the statement should include this fact. Keep this statement in your records. 

If your vision can be corrected beyond these limits only by contact lenses that you can wear only briefly because of pain, infection, or ulcers, you can still take the higher standard deduction for blindness if you otherwise qualify. 


Employees with Impairment-Related Work Expenses
IRS Pub. 529: Miscellaneous Deductions

Impairment-related expenses are ordinary and necessary business expenses that are:

  • Necessary for you to do your work satisfactorily; 
  • For goods and services not required or used, other than incidentally, in your personal activities; and 
  • Not specifically covered under other income tax laws.

If you are an employee and have a disability that functionally limits your employment, you may be able to claim business expenses for attendant care or other workplace expenses that are necessary for you to be able to work. If you are self-employed, you may list and value your impairment-related work expenses on the appropriate form used to report other business income and expenses.

Types of deductions under this category can include Braille printers, the costs of Braille books and periodicals that exceed standard versions, transportation costs to and from work, or the cost of necessary modifications to your home to accommodate your condition, among others. If you have a guide dog, the costs of its care, including trips to the vet, also should be deductible.


Gross IncomeIRS Pub. 525: Taxable and Nontaxable Income 

Certain disability-related payments may be excluded from gross income, including allowances paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Supplemental Security Income. 


Credit for the Elderly or Disabled IRS Pub. 524: Credit for the Elderly or Disabled 

You may be able to claim this credit if you are 65 or older, or if you are under 65 and you retired on permanent and total disability. You’re considered to have a permanent and total disability if you can't engage in any substantial gainful activity because of your physical or mental condition. A qualified physician must certify that the condition has lasted or can be expected to last continuously for 12 months or more, or that the condition can be expected to result in death. 


Medical ExpensesIRS Pub. 502: Medical and Dental Expenses

Often you can deduct the costs of diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, and treatments affecting any part or function of the body related to your disability. These can include the costs of equipment, supplies, and diagnostic devices needed for these purposes.


Earned Income Tax CreditIRS Pub. 596: Earned Income Credit 

The EITC is a tax credit for certain people who work and have low to moderate earned income. A tax credit usually reduces the amount of tax you owe; the EITC may even afford you a refund. 

Many working individuals with a disability qualify for the EITC if they are 25–65 years of age and have no qualifying children. Earnings for EITC purposes can include disability benefits you receive from your employer’s disability retirement plan until you reach minimum retirement age. 


Additional References on Related Topics


State Government Resources for People Who Are Legally Blind 

At the state level, service programs designed to benefit legally blind people and others with visual impairment often address more ground-level needs like rehabilitation, vocational training, schooling, support for independent living, assistive technology, etc. Some state governments offer monthly pensions or grants to blind residents who qualify.


State Support Services

Agencies have been established in each state to provide support services to legally blind and visually impaired people. American Printing House for the Blind offers a comprehensive directory of services that can be searched by state or topic for organizations offering services in advocacy, employment, health, rehabilitation, training, and other areas. 


For adults, rehabilitation, life skills, employment, and support services are usually available through their state’s commission or agency for the blind. The National Council for the Blind maintains listings for the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, which has members in 28 U.S. states and territories. The National Federation of the Blind also offers a database of affiliated organizations that is searchable by state. Or your local department of health and human services can help locate the commission for the blind in your state.

Legally blind children can receive standard schooling in each state’s school for the visually impaired, as well as extra training and special assistance. The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired maintains a nationwide list of schools and other entities supporting visual impairment secondary schooling in the United States.

State Pensions or Cash Grants

Some states offer pensions or cash grants for legally blind people, the guidelines and criteria of which vary by state and program. For example, Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program provides a cash benefit to help visually impaired adults with monthly expenses. Also, Missouri's Blind Pension program has provided monthly benefits since 1921 for blind residents who don't qualify for Social Security’s SSI program. In addition to a monthly cash grant, eligible blind residents also receive health care coverage. The state of Washington provides blind low-income recipients a monthly cash grant if they don't qualify for SSI or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. And Illinois offers a similar monthly grant program, which allows blind residents to meet their basic needs. 

 

To find out if your state offers a cash grant or pension program for qualifying blind residents, contact your state's agency for the blind, or department of health and human services.

Technology and Practical Resources

Assistive Technology

Modern assistive technology encompasses items designed specifically to help people with vision loss or other disabilities. For visually impaired people, this now includes screen readers and screen magnifiers for computers, phones, and tablets, as well as other devices for reading and writing with low vision. Braille technology has expanded from Braille readers and translators to include Braille watches and Braille printers

The American Foundation for the Blind’s database of products designed to help people with visual impairments is searchable by category, manufacturer, task or function, or size of visual display. 

Practical Resources

Canes and mobility devices are low-tech but equally essential items that help people with visual impairments navigate the world. For example, the signature white cane has allowed blind people to travel freely and safely for decades. The National Federation of the Blind has distributed more than 64,000 free white canes since 2008 because of their conviction that “No blind person should be without a white cane, regardless of his or her ability to pay for it.” 

Professionally trained guide dogs also are a great help for many people who are legally blind, although costs are far higher, and waiting lists can be long to receive one. Organizations such as Guide Dogs for the Blind and Guide Dogs of America exist to raise, train, and supply guide dogs free of charge to visually impaired people to enhance their mobility and quality of life. 


Other Resources for People Who Are Legally Blind

Many websites and other entities offer lists and resources that can help legally blind people and others with visual impairments. Several of the most comprehensive include the following:

  • The New York Institute of Special Education’s list of organizations offers access to services across the United States for those who are legally blind or visually impaired.
  • The National Federation of the Blind offers a database of affiliate organizations that is searchable by state. 
  • American Printing House for the Blind and VisionAware offer a Directory of Services for visually impaired people that can be searched by state, or alphabetically by topics ranging from advocacy to employment to transportation.
  • A national program offered by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Braille and Talking Book Library Service works with local libraries across the country to lend books, magazines, and music scores in Braille and large print, plus recorded audiobooks and playback equipment, to those who can’t read standard print materials.
  • American Foundation for the Blind’s VisionConnect app provides a searchable directory of services available in the U.S. and Canada for children and adults who are blind or visually impaired. Searchers can find services such as computer and technology training, daily living skills training, braille and reading instruction, dog guide training, employment services, low vision services, and more.
  • VisionAware’s “Getting Started” Kit is a comprehensive set of steps to help people new to vision loss assess, understand, acclimate, and eventually enjoy their lives despite visual impairment.  
  • IRS Publication No. 3966: Living and Working with Disabilities gives an informational overview of potential tax deductions, income exclusions, or deductions afforded to taxpayers with disabilities. 


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