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Understanding visual impairment in competitive sports

As Australia and New Zealand’s Paralympians gear up for competition, some of the key contenders to bring home medals are our visually impaired athletes. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) has produced a handy guide for people watching wanting to better understand the visual impairments of the Australian and New Zealand Paralympians.

Dr Richard Rawson, a Sydney-based ophthalmologist and a RANZCO Fellow, is currently in Rio as a Visual Impairment Classifier – one of only four International Sports Visual Impairment Classifiers from around the world chosen to be part of the international medical team.

“It can be difficult for people watching visually impaired athletes to understand how a competitor’s visual impairment limits their ability. People often ask me to explain what a competitor will be able to see,” said Dr Rawson. “The more we understand, the more amazing these people’s achievements are – not only have they put in the dedication and hard work to become elite athletes, but they have done so despite having an impairment which would stop many of us in our tracks.”

As a Visual Impairment Classifier, Dr Rawson is one of a team of eye health experts who assess competitors’ vision to determine their eligibility to compete as Paralympians.

“Correct classification of impairments for international sporting competitions is essential to ensure the fairness of the games. With visual impairments the classification can be particularly tricky,” explains DrRawson. “It can be easy to verify a physical impairment such as a missing limb and to understand what limitations that places on the competitor. With a visual impairment, often the competitor’s eyes look perfectly normal. It is the job of the visual impairment classifiers to test a competitor’s vision and check that the tests correspond with the type of impairment they have and that the degree of impairment meets the requirements to compete as a Paralympian.”

There are two types of visual impairment for Paralympians, visual acuity and visual field, each of which can be caused by a range of conditions. For the level of visual acuity to be impaired sufficiently to compete as a Paralympian, the competitor would have to be unable to read the top line – the largest line – on an eye test board and for that to be unable to be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. Conditions which might cause this type of impairment include stargardts or macular dystrophy.

A visual field impairment means that a person can only see part of the field of vision that a person with normal sight would be able to see. For example, a person’s field of vision may be limited to the centre of what they can see, with everything around that being blank. In this case, for the visual field impairment to be severe enough to compete as a Paralympian, the competitor would be able to see only a very small dot of vision in the centre. Conditions which might cause this type of impairment include congenital glaucoma, choroideremia and retinitis pigmentosa.






Visual impairment in competitive sports

To learn more about the Australian and New Zealand Paralympians, check out the team pages at and

For more information about conditions which cause visual impairment, check out the Eye Conditions pages on the RANZCO website at

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) is the professional body for ophthalmologists — eye doctors — in Australia and New Zealand. The College acts as the voice of the profession for its 1600 members and is responsible for the training, examining and professional development of Ophthalmologists. Our mission is to drive improvements in eye healthcare in Australia, New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific region through continuing exceptional training, education, researchand advocacy.

For more information or to arrange an interview contact Emma Carr or Josie Faunce at RANZCO on 02 9690 1001 and

Last updated: December 10, 2018

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