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By Jean Kalscheur, Vision Rehabilitation Teacher,
Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired

Persons who have diabetes are at risk for diabetic eye disease.  Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that includes diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and glaucoma.  According to Prevent Blindness America, people with diabetes are 25 to 30 times more likely to lose vision from retinopathy, cataracts, or glaucoma compared to persons without diabetes.

In diabetic retinopathy, retinal blood vessels break down, leak, or become blocked.  Serious damage occurs when new blood vessels grow on the retina’s surface and cause the retina to detach.  There may be no warning signs in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy.  Only after the disease becomes severe does a person notice vision changes which may include blurry vision that cannot be made clear with eye glasses or dark spots that don’t go away.  

Diabetic Retinopathy Example

A person with typical vision sees the boy on the left.

A person with diabetic retinopathy sees the boy on the right.


A cataract is a clouding of the lens, which is supposed to be transparent.  Cataracts are often seen as we age.  They are also seen in persons with diabetes at earlier ages.  A cataract may cause cloudy or blurred vision.

Cataracts Example

A person with typical vision sees the boys on the left.

A person with cataracts sees the boys on the right.


Glaucoma, a third diabetic eye disease, causes loss of sight through damage to the optic nerve from elevated fluid pressure within the eye.  A person with glaucoma gradually loses portions of peripheral vision.  Once damage to the optic nerve occurs, it cannot be restored.

Glaucoma Example

A person with typical vision sees the action scene to the left.

A person with glaucoma sees the action scene to the right.


It is a mistake to assume that you will know if you have diabetic eye disease.  These conditions are often painless, and changes in clarity or visual field tend to occur gradually.  By the time you recognize a problem, vision has been lost.  There are treatment options for diabetic eye disease, and these should be discussed during an eye exam.  The earlier a problem is diagnosed, the more successful treatment can be. 

If you are reading this and are diabetic, 96% of you know that diabetes can lead to vision loss and blindness, according to a survey by the American Diabetes Association.  However, only one fifth of us are proactive in managing eye health. 

Here are some action steps you can take to keep your eyes as healthy as possible.  Additional can be found at

  1. Prevent Blindness America and the American Diabetes Association recommend a dilated eye exam once a year if you are over the age of 30.  Eyes are dilated using eye drops that widen the pupil to allow the eye doctor to get a close look at the inside of the eye.
  2. See your eye doctor if you notice a change in your vision, including blurry vision, double vision, one or both eyes hurt, feeling of pressure in the eye, trouble reading signs or books, and can’t see things to the side as you used to.
  3. Control blood sugar.
  4. Control blood pressure.
  5. Make healthy food choices that include lots of vegetables, fruits and fish.
  6. Stop smoking.
  7. Stay active.

If you have lost vision as a result of diabetic eye disease, locate vision rehabilitation services in your area.  Vision rehabilitation specialists will work with you to learn strategies and techniques or to find adaptive technology that help maintain your independence at home, work, school, and in the community.  Low vision specialists help determine appropriate optical aids and how to use them.  Vision rehabilitation teaches people how to manage every day activities.  Orientation and mobility specialists teach orienting within a space and safe, independent travel skills.  To find vision rehabilitation services, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or check out the information resources at