06 January 2009

Helping the helpless

Imagine this - you are a tailor in a village in rural Ghana, you have little income, just enough to scrape a living. Precious spectaclesAs you reach the ripe old age of 35 your eyes deteriorate and you can no longer see to thread the needle on your sewing machine. You are forced to retire.

The problem - a pair of glasses would solve the poor sight but there's no optician anywhere nearby and even if there was, you couldn't afford to pay him.

This is a true story. The man in the photo is African, a Zulu, his life has perhaps been transformed by the glasses he's wearing. The Ghanaian tailor's life was transformed in the same way. Perhaps it's not quite true to claim that 'they were blind, but now they see' but it's no exaggeration to say they were short sighted but now they see clearly, clearly enough to be able to read, and work, and earn an income.

The availabilty of cheap but effective glasses can transform individual lives and even entire communities. But there's a serious snag. Glasses are expensive for two reasons, first you must obtain a prescription to suit your eyes, and then you have to pay for bespoke lenses made to match the prescription. Opticians and optical labs are expensive, far too expensive for an African or Indian villager.

The solution - enter Josh Silver, an Oxford physicist. Thinking about this problem he hit on the idea of creating special glasses that each person can adjust to suit their own eyes. Now he's getting help to roll them out on a larger and larger scale.

An article in last month's Guardian (Inventor's 2020 vision) explains how the invention was made, how it works, and how it's being scaled up to help millions, hopefully even billions. It needs powerful sponsors in industry and government but that support is beginning to appear. The future looks promising; not least for the world's short-sighted poor.

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