First low-vision clinic in the Valley equips 26 children with helpful tech

EDINBURG — As he walked into the room, Eric Longoria found his way through tables, chairs and people with the help of his cane and his mother who walked by his side. The 17-year-old was diagnosed as legally blind soon after birth and on Wednesday, he received a new magnifier to help him gain more independence.

“He was very little when we noticed his eyes would shake a lot, and thought something was wrong,” said Rosalba Roel, Eric’s mother. “The way the doctor explained it was, ‘Look through a straw and what you can see is what he can see.’”

Eric was one of 26 children with severe sight impediments from across the Valley to receive an electronic video magnifier to take home — free of cost — courtesy of Sight Savers America, a nonprofit aiming to provide free eye-care and vision services to qualifying individuals throughout the country. The estimated cost of the equipment is about $2,500 per unit, and this is the first time the nonprofit visits the southernmost region of Texas.

The magnifier allows users to enlarge text and images near and far, up to 118 times its normal size for users with low vision. They can also change color, contrast, adjust the field of view, among other adjustments to prevent them from forcing their vision.

“This is a low-vision clinic,” explained Matt Daw, Sight Savers case specialist. “Every child has to have a recommendation from a low-vision doctor for this equipment. Similar to when you get a prescription from your doctor. It’s the same process.”

Sight Savers of America is based in Alabama but serves the entire country by partnering with entities, such as Region One Education Service Center in this case, to select a first group of children or adults to receive the equipment. For children, the age is usually 5 to 18 years old, but it varies based on need, Daw said, and the nonprofit will provide technical support and follow up with the children up until they turn 19 years old.

The nonprofit operates based on grants, which they apply for on behalf of a specific area and then they see how many machines can be provided with the grant money received. Once they have a group of recipients selected, a group of specialists like Daw visits those areas and get the families set up with the equipment. This is the first time the nonprofit receives funding for the Rio Grande Valley area, but there are plans to apply for more funds in the future.

“This is going to help a lot with homework,” said Nataly Muñoz in Spanish. Her 8-year-old daughter Ruth Muñoz received a magnifier. Most parents were notified via their school officials after being contacted by Region One Specialist Twinkle Morgan.

“Sometimes it’s hard for teachers to give her print outs with larger words,” Muñoz said. “We struggled a lot and we could tell she forced her sight a lot… sometimes she couldn’t understand or would cry saying she couldn’t see the letters.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Daw sat with Eric and his mother for about half an hour to explain how the equipment can be used. Eric quickly got the hang of it and found that it was easier for him to read white lettering on a black background.

He enlarged the text as much as needed and read a few paragraphs from the screen in front of him while adjusting the book on his hands to follow the text with ease, and even locked the screen to write a few words, which were carefully aligned over the line. This was not possible at home, his mother explained, as he constantly needed help making sure he could align his writing, and read as much as he could.

“He’ll be able to do more things on his own,” Roel said. “We always had to show him where to write and tell him, ‘Oh you are going crooked,’ or ‘Don’t start there,’ when writing. So he’ll be more independent for sure.”

Eric, who attends Harlingen High School South, says he has similar technology at school, but was excited to try this new equipment at home and have more freedom to do his work or hobbies on his own.

“It was amazing,” Eric said after his trial. “I can’t wait to use it. … I’ll be able to do a lot more, like read more and practice writing. I’m not very good at writing. It’s very user friendly so it was kind of easy to pick it up.”