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The key to 3-D vision

A visual impairment that condemns children to see in only two dimensions can go unrecognized for years and be mistaken for stigmatized disorders.

June 22, 2009|Susan R. Barry | Susan R. Barry is a professor of neurobiology in the department of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of "Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions."

I was 20 years old and a college student before I learned that I did not see the world like everyone else. I had been cross-eyed as a baby, but three childhood surgeries made my eyes look straight. Because my eyes looked normal, I assumed I saw normally too. But, in fact, I was stereoblind -- unable to see in three dimensions.

That means I could not see the volumes of space between objects. Instead, things in depth appeared piled one on top of another, making me feel nervous and confused in cluttered environments. As a child, I didn't understand why my friends were so entertained when they looked through a View-Master. I didn't see Disney characters or Superman popping out at me. All I saw was a flat image.

When I got older, my gaze -- particularly at a distance -- was jittery, making it difficult to read signs while driving. I was always disoriented and easily lost.

The biggest effect of my vision was on my performance in school. I had trouble learning to read and did poorly on standardized tests. These problems were blamed not on my vision but on a lack of intelligence, and I was put in a class with other problem children.

That was in the early 1960s, but the situation hasn't greatly improved today. Children are still not routinely tested for binocular vision deficits because the standard school vision exam (reading the eye chart with one eye at a time) doesn't screen for defects in eye coordination or stereovision. As a result, many children with vision problems may be labeled learning disabled, or if they misbehave in frustration, diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Despite my visual shortcomings, when my husband and I took our children to Disney World 16 years ago, I insisted that we see the 3-D movies. As my kids watched gigantic insects fly off the screen toward us, they screamed and retreated to the safety of my lap. They were thrilled, and so was I. Although the bugs did not pop off the screen at me, I knew that my children's view of the world was much more stable and depth-filled than mine, and that they were less likely to encounter the problems that I had faced in school.

Then, at age 48, I consulted a developmental optometrist who prescribed a program of optometric vision therapy, which taught me how to coordinate my eyes and see in stereo. With my new stereovision, I learned to play tennis and could drive with confidence and without fatigue.

Most surprisingly, my view of the world changed in ways I couldn't have imagined. Ordinary objects looked extraordinary. Sink faucets popped out at me; light fixtures appeared to float in midair. Tree limbs reached out toward me or grew upward, enclosing palpable volumes of space. Snowflakes no longer appeared to be falling in one plane slightly in front of me but were falling at different depths all around me in a beautiful, three-dimensional dance. I felt myself immersed in a three-dimensional world.

So it was with great anticipation that I recently attended a showing of "Up," the new 3-D Disney/Pixar film. When I put on the Polaroid glasses at the theater last week, the film scenery bloomed into three dimensions. Balloons floated off the screen, and clouds receded far into the distance. Even the characters' noses seemed solid and palpable.

Combined with feelings of joy at my new view of 3-D movies were feelings of anger. Why hadn't anyone told me when I was a child that I lacked stereovision? Why had all my problems in school been blamed on my supposed lack of intelligence and not on my vision? Why hadn't my parents been told about optometric vision therapy? Why do these issues persist today?

Perhaps 3-D movies have more to offer than pure entertainment. With the growing number of 3-D films for children, more parents may spot visual deficits in their kids. Detecting these problems early and then seeking proper treatment can improve a child's vision and transform a child's life.

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