Birth defects affect the structure or function of parts or systems in the body and this can result in many different developmental and health problems. Birth defects which affect the sensory organs are known as sensory birth defects; the most common examples include cataracts, visual impairment, blindness and hearing loss.

Blindness rarely develops during the teenage and early adult years; most people are either born with blindness or develop it as a result of other visual problems which get worse as they age. In some rare cases, blindness may also result from an accident or injury or exposure to a harmful chemical. Blindness that exists from birth is known as congenital blindness; in this case, the baby will probably never be able to see. There are different degrees of visual impairment and some people who have a birth defect which affects the sensory organs only suffer from mild visual impairment.

What causes congenital blindness?

There may be many different causes of congenital blindness and visual problems; possible causes are outlined below:

  • An inherited condition: some children are born blind because they inherit a condition after conception. In many cases, visual problems may be caused by other types of birth defect or serious inherited health conditions; for example children born with Ackerman syndrome often suffer from glaucoma, which can cause blindness.
  • An infection during pregnancy: an infection which affects the mother during pregnancy can also harm the development of the foetus. Rubella (also known as German measles) often contributes to hearing loss and visual problems amongst babies.
  • A defect in the eye or brain: congenital blindness may be caused by a problem with the development of a structure in the eye or the brain.
  • Injuries which occur during childbirth; although this is very rare, it is possible that an injury during childbirth may cause blindness.

Blindness can also be caused by existing conditions, which become worse over time; examples of these conditions include glaucoma and cataracts, which may be common symptoms of birth defects.

Blindness and development

Being blind does not have any impact on intellectual capacity but it may make learning more difficult because so much of our learning and development is aided by seeing the world around us. Blind children and adults tend to rely on their other senses, particularly their hearing and touch to guide them and enable them to learn. Using Braille and other tangible objects enables blind people to do everyday activities such as crossing the road, making a phone call or reading a book; Braille uses small tangible dots and bumps that can spell out words or replace letters or numbers. Audio books enable blind people to listen to books, rather than reading them and hearing can also be very beneficial for things like communicating with others and keeping safe when out and about.

Many children with visual impairment attend regular schools, although there are many specialist schools which cater for children with more severe visual problems and blindness. At school, pupils should be given additional support and the school should cater for them by providing Braille equipment and ensuring the surroundings are suitable and safe.

Aids and help for blind people

As mentioned above, many people rely on their other senses to get around and live a normal daily life; however, there are additional aids which can help to make life easier. Braille, as e have already established, is hugely beneficial for blind people; it allows them to do everything from making a telephone call and reading a book, to understanding forms and letters. Many blind people also benefit from having a specially trained guide dog; these dogs help to enable people to stay relatively independent and keep them safe when they are crossing roads or are out and about walking.

Treating blindness

There is currently no cure for blindness and those born with blindness will have to face the reality of never being able to see; this is a strange, frightening concept for people who have good sight. There are treatments available for some visual conditions; however, not all problems are curable. If you are born with a visual impairment, your doctor or ophthalmologist will discuss all the possible options and treatment pathways with you.

Scientists and researchers are currently working on numerous projects to identify measures and treatments which can cure congenital blindness; one of the methods being trialled is gene therapy.

Sensory Birth Defects

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