Although it was more than 30 years ago, Nora Waliczek will never forget the fury she felt after discovering her 7-year-old son’s reading difficulties were a result of a problem with his eyesight rather than a learning disorder. His teacher assured Waliczek that since he passed the school vision screening his eye sight was fine. But when she took him to an optometrist six months later, she realized her son saw "the letters jumping all over."
"I felt very angry with myself and the school," says Waliczek, a paraeducator and representative for the Illinois Teachers Union. "I thought the suffering was ridiculous and shouldn’t go on. He fell behind in school because of his vision."
Waliczek went on a mission over the next three decades to raise awareness about the insufficiency of school eye screenings. Along with the help of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Vision First Foundation, an organization she co-founded with Janet Hughes, Waliczek helped push for a new law that took effect Jan. 1. The law mandates that children beginning kindergarten or enrolling in public, private or parochial elementary schools in Illinois must have a comprehensive eye exam within one year before starting school.
"There are many ways children need to use their eyes to learn effectively," says Geoffrey Goodfellow, chief of pediatrics of Illinois Eye Institute. "When there is a problem with the visual system, it can prevent children from learning the best that they can."
According to Goodfellow, comprehensive exams are more complete than the vision screenings in schools because they test eye coordination and depth perception. Many children fell through the cracks because they failed vision screenings, but they weren’t taken for comprehensive exams. Exams range in cost from $55 at Wal-Mart and around $140 at private offices. Certain programs, like the All Kids program or special clinics funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health, can offer parents financial assistance.
"They say one in four students has a vision problem that interferes with learning," Waliczek says. "I couldn’t look the other way."