Award-winning author Lynley Hood says the Foundation of the Blind is ignoring the needs of more than 100,000 people with vision impairment because its membership criteria are too strict, creating what she calls a "public health crisis".
Hood has joined forces with former National Party leader Don Brash, setting up a charitable trust to advocate for better services for the partially blind.
The author of 'A City Possessed' about the Christchurch Civic Creche case, lost the sight of one eye and started to lose the vision in the other in 2009, but found she was "not blind enough" to receive help from the foundation.
She said the foundation essentially told her to "sod off, come back when you're properly blind".
She felt the organisation, which raised $21 million a year in donations, treated low-vision people "like something they scraped off their shoe".
Perversely, she said, some people hoped to go fully blind more quickly so they could receive help.
Hood said the foundation's criteria were unrealistic.
"If you fail the eye chart test for being able to drive, you have to be twice as bad as that to qualify for help from the foundation. It's not what I would expect of a charity that claims to provide services for the blind and vision-impaired."
The foundation's chief executive, Sandra Budd, told a Retina NZ conference last year the organisation recognised low vision was a big issue, but did not have the funds to cope with the growing number of people losing their sight.
"We can't be all things to all people," she said.
There were about 12,000 New Zealanders who met the "blindness criteria" and 124,000 people who had low vision. Those numbers were expected to grow to 18,000 and 174,000 by 2020, she said.
The foundation said in a statement its membership criteria were more inclusive than the World Health Organisation standard, and some of its members could see the first two or three lines of an eye chart with corrective lenses.
Sight loss was a "continuum", the statement said, and the organisation needed to focus its services on those with the greatest need. To help those with low vision who did not meet the foundation's criteria, it had set up a trial service in Auckland called Vision Solutions, providing visual aids and support at a cost. It would be rolled out nationally if successful.
But Hood was scathing about the users-pay service, saying it seemed the foundation was "financially exploiting anxious and vulnerable people who are losing their sight".
Fairfax media reported last year that there were concerns about the foundation's commercial approach, especially the salaries of executives such as Budd's, which is about $250,000.
Nine other executive directors are paid between $110,000 and $190,000. Some members believe that money would be better spent helping a wider cross-section of the vision-impaired community.
After Hood started losing her sight, she began researching what services were available to partially blind people and was stunned to learn that the number of low- vision clinics in public hospitals had dropped from 10 to two.
"It [low vision] is twice as common as dementia. There was an announcement the other day of extra money for dementia. That's fair enough, but this is another public health crisis. Low vision is one of the top risk factors for falls among the elderly and falls cost the health service big money."
Hood has established Visual Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa (visualimpairment.org. nz). It has begun a petition to Parliament for an inquiry into the need for accessible, comprehensive low- vision rehabilitation services.
- Fairfax Media
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