Examining patients with learning disabilities
- Patients with learning disabilities may have additional ocular conditions and other health problems.
- You should use tests and procedures that are appropriate to the patient’s needs.
- You must follow the guidance on consent when discussing the patient’s condition with a relative or carer.
- When you communicate with the patient, you should talk directly to them rather than their carer.
- If possible, in advance of the appointment, you should discuss with the patient and their relative or carer what adjustments may be needed to help them understand information and participate in the examination.
- You should provide the patient and relative or carer with a written, as well as a verbal, report.
- A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities, for example household tasks, socialising or managing money, which affects someone for their whole life. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complex information and interact with other people. The level of support someone needs depends on individual factors, including the severity of their learning disability.26
26 Mencap Learning disability explained [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
- The major causes of learning disability in the UK are:27
- unknown aetiology
- chromosomal disorders
- Down’s syndrome
- Fragile-X syndrome
- cerebral palsy
- genetic disorders
- metabolic disorders
- iatrogenic disorders.
27 Royal College of Ophthalmologists (2015) Eye care services for adults with learning disabilities [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
- Patients with learning disabilities can have the same range of visual problems as the general population. It has been estimated that people with learning disabilities are ten times more likely to have specific ocular conditions,28 including:
- blepharitis – common in people with Down’s syndrome
- concomitant strabismus
- cortical visual impairment
- entropion – common in people with Down’s syndrome
- field defects
- high refractive error – especially myopia and astigmatism
- impaired accommodation
- reduced vision.
- Some people with learning disabilities may also have a wider range of health problems than the general population and may have other disabilities, including hearing impairment.
- When examining a patient with learning disabilities you should:
- make reasonable adjustments to the patient’s eye care, for example by using a range of tests and procedures that are appropriate to the needs of the patient, and
- seek their consent to get a briefing from a relative or carer, if necessary.
- If they are unable to consent, refer for advice to the section on Consent.
- Encourage the patient to attend with a relative or carer if they are unlikely to be able to give full and accurate details, history and the reason for visit.
- When examining a patient with learning disabilities you should:
- encourage the patient to visit your premises before their eye examination to help them become familiar and comfortable with the environment
- encourage the patient and carer to complete SeeAbility’s ‘Telling the optometrist about me’ form29 and bring it to the eye examination
- find out how the patient likes to communicate and how their disabilities affect them
- find out about any recent signs, symptoms or behavioural changes that might be relevant
- ask to refer to the patient’s health action plan or communication passport, if they have one
- be prepared to spend longer on the examination and to arrange repeat visits to obtain full and valid results
- attempt visual field assessment, even if only by using confrontation techniques
- use cycloplegic examination, if necessary, to determine the full refractive error
- use mydriasis, if necessary, to internally examine the eye
- give clear information to the patient or carer about the effects of eye drops
- record any reasons for limitations on the examination and results obtained, and
- consider if you need to refer the patient for further tests, for example examination under anaesthetic, or electrophysiological tests. If you decide that you do, you should involve learning disability health professionals for advice about access to health care and treatment for a person with learning disabilities.
- When you communicate with a patient with learning disabilities you should:
- talk directly to the patient, rather than their carer
- take time to speak clearly
- explain what you are doing in plain English
- warn the patient before you touch them, and
- explain and show them the equipment you are using.
- In England the Accessible Information Standard applies to NHS patients, including those using General Ophthalmic Services, who have information or communication support needs relating to a learning disability, sensory loss or other impairment. GOS contractors need to ensure that patients receive information in a suitable accessible format unless the provision of this would be at disproportionate or unreasonable cost. The Optical Confederation produces guidance on this,30 and SeeAbility provides information in ‘Easy Read’ factsheets.31 Practitioners in the other UK nations should also make the information they produce accessible.
29 SeeAbility (2016) Having an eye test [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
30 Optical Confederation (2016) NHS Accessible Information Standard guidance for community optical practices [Accessed 5 Jun 2020]
31 SeeAbility (2016) Having an eye test [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
- You should provide the patient and relative or carer with a written, as well as a verbal, report. This should be copied to the patient’s GP if the patient consents. You can use the suggested accessible feedback form ‘Feedback from the optometrist about my eye test’ from SeeAbility32 to help the patient and their relative or carer to understand their eye examination and what you have found. A report specifically suitable for children is also available from Seeability.33 Your report should also include:
- reasons why results of the examination may be limited
- details of referral to another practitioner
- information on agencies that may be able to provide further advice or support, and
- advice on spectacle wear, copied, with the patient’s consent, to other relevant professionals involved in their care and to staff at a college or day centre that the patient attends.
32 SeeAbility. After the eye test: Feedback from my optometrist [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
33 SeeAbility (2016) The results of your child’s eye tests [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
- If you supply spectacles to a patient with a learning disability you should consider labelling them with the patient’s name, date of supply and whether they are for distance or near tasks. Labelling should be suitable in terms of the patient’s dignity, infection control and type of frame supplied. SeeAbility has factsheets on wearing spectacles for people with learning disabilities. 34
See section on Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.
34 SeeAbility Wearing glasses [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
Department of Health (2013) Learning disabilities good practice project [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
General Medical Council. Learning disabilities [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
Royal College of Ophthalmologists (2015) Eye care for adults with learning disabilities [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
The Scottish Accessible Information Forum provides information and training on how to produce accessible information.
SeeAbility has various resources on eye health, sight tests, wearing glasses, eye conditions and eye operations that are useful to the optometrist, the patient and their carers.
SeeAbility, Find anoptometrist database [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]
SeeAbility has information on eye tests for children and young people with learning disabilities. This includes downloadable forms [Accessed 26 Oct 2017]