June 1, 2004
A local optometrist is on a mission to improve education in Arizona — through eyesight.
Jeff Eger, a Tempe optometrist and former first-grade teacher, wants to reach children who may have been diagnose with a learning disability or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, when their primary problem is related to their vision and ability to transmit information properly, he said.
He’s not talking about children needing eyeglasses. It’s vision training, or eye exercises, that could hold the answer to improving test scores and the self-esteem of children whose eye problems go unnoticed, Eger said.
While he plans to keep his practice open, he is renewing his teacher certification with the state.
Eger hopes a school will allow him to teach children daily vision exercises to improve their eyes’ ability to track, work together and transmit information quickly and efficiently — either as a teacher or as a school behavioral optometrist. He wants to survey whether their performance in school is affected by an improved ability to send information from their eyes to their brain.
If the program works, he hopes it will expand statewide.
"If there are behavioral psychologists in schools, why aren’t there behavioral optometrists?" Eger asked. "Vision can be learned. A lot in the psychology and education field believe it doesn’t work. What is safer for children: To put them on some kind of speed or mind-altering drug like Ritalin, or to basically address these eyes and see if they pick up themselves without the drug, and get to be a real individual rather than someone masquerading as an adjusted individual?"
He touted John Smith, 24, as evidence that vision therapy works. Eger said Smith went from being considered learning disabled to becoming a star athlete and college engineering student after five months of vision therapy training in fifth grade.
"I would actually focus at a picture and not be able to look at the picture smoothly, trace it left to right," said Smith, who lives in Phoenix. "My eyes wiggled, it was hard focusing on the center."
Smith said he improved as a basketball player, and his reading and writing got better because of improved hand-eye coordination. In addition, he no longer needed his glasses.
"I just needed consistent, repetitious exercise," he said. "Your eyes work with your body."
Eger, who works with the likes of professional golfer Phil Mickelson, seeks about 10 to 15 minutes a day with students for therapy that he said is used in schools in China to ensure educational success. Outside Arizona, there are charter schools that focus on vision therapy as one technique for improving grades, including in Michigan and Ohio.
"How many John Smiths are out there being mislabeled because they have poor selfesteem?" Eger asked. "I know there are more John Smiths out there."
Vision therapy can be controversial, and eye doctors differ greatly on whether it is necessary for all children, or whether it is actually the answer for some of the children diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability.
But Eger hopes for a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in test scores for any class that undergoes the project.
Some educators question whether teachers can fit vision therapy into their already busy schedules.
"That would be a challenge because with anything that’s new and different, people would really like to see some concrete evidence," said Queen Creek Middle School principal Tom Lindsey. "But I’m always looking for new ways to help kids."
Tom Wilson, an optometrist from Colorado — a hotbed for vision therapy — said while good vision is an important factor in getting good grades, money is an issue with wanting to have every child undergo therapy that is only likely necessary for 5 percent of any population.
"Certainly learning disabilities and focusing problems overlap," he said.
But he recommended diagnosing children with specific symptoms, rather than having all children undergo vision therapy. A comprehensive eye exam is the best way to get to the root of the problem because not all of children’s learning disabilities are the result of vision problems, he said.
Signs that vision may be affecting school:
• Poor reading comprehension
• Difficulty copying from one place to another
• Loss of place, repetition or omission of words while reading
• Difficulty changing focus from distance to near and back
• Poor posture when reading or writing
• Poor handwriting
• Can respond orally but can’t get the same information down on paper
• Letter and word reversals
• Difficulty judging sizes and shapes Source: College of Optometrists in Vision Development