Adamantine Gaze: VisionSpring's new eye care for Dharamsala

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

One of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's most distinctive features are his beloved glasses. It's hard to imagine him without those familiar circular lenses that have accompanied him throughout his life. If one can say that his glasses reinforce his relatively erudite activity, from the recitation of the Then for performing consecrations, empowerments, and other extremely elaborate rituals, spectacles are far from being the preserve of bookish people. Recently, His Holiness gave his blessing to the new presence of VisionSpring, a non-profit organization, in Dharamsala, the Indian base of his Gelug school and Tibetan community. VisionSpring focuses on eye health screening and providing optical care to low-income countries in the Global South.

“I know from personal experience how much a pair of glasses can improve someone's life. I am glad to know about the good work done by VisionSpring in correcting the vision of underprivileged people, young and old, recently in Dharamsala and other places as well,” the Dalai Lama said. (VisionSpring, India). He met with the board of VisionSpring India on June 21. The organization began monitoring people in Dharamsala in late April and early June, monitoring a group of 681 monks. And it's a good thing the monks were screened: 60% needed a pair of glasses and VisionSpring played a vital role in helping 70% of them get their first pair.

VisionSpring India Board and Team Members with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of VisionSpring India

Anshu Taneja, Vice President and Managing Director of VisionSpring India, spoke elated about meeting His Holiness, reflecting, “He gave us his blessings and was kind enough to spend some time one-on-one. head with us. VisionSpring India leaders were moved to see His Holiness face to face. We were so struck by his compassion, gentleness and encouraging words. It was so special that it will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America are among the concerns of the VisionSpring team. India accounts for the largest share of VisionSpring's work. A staggering 550 million Indians need eyeglasses, and more than a million require eye care every year. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1,1 billion people do not have the glasses they need every year. Conversely, global productivity could be significantly improved through proper eye care for this one billion population. A randomized controlled trial carried out in Assam in 2018 by the University of Belfast – the results were published in The Lancet– showed that productivity increased by up to 22 to 32 percent among a sample group that received eye care. Better productivity in a large part of the countries of the South remains a path towards a better quality of life.

Refractive error and presbyopia rates and first carrier rates for 681 screenings in the Dalai Lama community. Image courtesy of VisionSpring India

“We have a program called Livelihoods in Focus, which aims to monitor the eyesight of tea, coffee and cocoa workers around the world. Dharamsala is full of tea plantations, but there are also schoolchildren, artisans and other groups who depend on their sight for their livelihood or education,” Taneja explained. “Glasses are extremely important for people who do delicate or technical work. Consider the Namgyal Institute, a center for learning Tibetan handicrafts. Typical artisans need a sound and precise view of what they are doing when it comes to intricate carvings and carving or cutting techniques. And reading sutras, rituals and ceremonies requires good vision.

Dharamsala was therefore a natural fit for the VisionSpring Board to bring Livelihoods in Focus there. So far, more than 14 people in and around the city have been screened. “We are very proud of how we localize our eye care initiatives. Our local integration helps us overcome cultural biases against eyeglasses and promote optometric health through local government and education,” Taneja said.

Anshu Taneja, Vice President and Managing Director of VisionSpring India and team members greet the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of VisionSpring India

The misinformation people may harbor about eye care is significant and often difficult to dispel.

“We face a lot of inertia, denial and ignorance when it comes to eye care in India,” Taneja continued. “A lot of these issues focus on social stigmas and taboos, for example among women. In rural India, almost no women wear sunglasses, and this is based solely on social and cultural perceptions that sunglasses project a certain image or reflect the character of women as being "too cool" or threatening to men.

In some communities, misperceptions about glasses reverse causality: a driver wearing glasses is considered to have poor eyesight, when it was the glasses that corrected their already bad eyesight.

“Of course, the poor are more affected by poor eye health,” Taneja continued. “But the situation of the urban poor is generally worse than that of the rural poor, even if the difference is marginal. The rural poor lack access to eye care, but the urban poor cannot afford the high and prohibitive cost of eyeglasses, while financial distress and pollution are worse in cities than in the countryside.

Noopur Srivastava, Director of Institutional Partnerships, meets the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of VisionSpring India

Local integration is essential to correct these misconceptions: "In some areas where the position of women is frankly not good at all, it takes a lot of work by village councils or influential women to educate people about women's need for eye care. . In some cases, we have turned eyeglass screenings into events by presenting eyeglasses to children as if it were a prize, something desirable. We have campaigned with the government, but we need sustained campaigns on social media and with authority figures, like religious leaders and even His Holiness. Wearing glasses should be normalized. Taboos can be so ingrained and so strong that even those who wear glasses at home might not wear them in public.

The good news is that mobile phone culture and social media have penetrated even into rural areas of India, making it possible to challenge prejudices more frequently. Building on this trend, VisionSpring India has launched its Clear Vision India initiative. "Anyone who wants glasses will have access to them," Taneja said. “We have a five-year plan to make eye care affordable, change perceptions and raise awareness. One of the questions we ask ourselves is how we can work more closely with government and stakeholders in places like Dharamsala.

Leaders plan to return to Dharamsala later this year to check more people in tea gardens, schools and monasteries. They will also make a trip to Ladakh.

Anshu Taneja, Vice President and Managing Director of VisionSpring India with the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of VisionSpring India

There is still a lot to do, even with a well-established supply chain. VisionSpring India's eyewear comes from a variety of sources, from in-house manufacturing to local manufacturers. The teams then bring the glasses to the communities. Seventy percent of the glasses are delivered, which is the pattern followed in Dharamsala. However, this is only possible with the consent and participation of local communities.

“Many monasteries in Ladakh, in particular, are very isolated. Hardly anyone can benefit from proper eye care. Based on our findings from monks in Dharamsala, it is fair to predict that many Ladakhi monks have poor or deteriorating eyesight. We sincerely hope to make a difference for the people there: our work has only just begun.

“We will always seek the support of His Holiness, and indeed local support is essential whenever we travel to a new area or community. Bringing local people with us helps us gain better access and build trust. In the case of Dharamsala, Dawa Phunkyi from Delek Hospital helped us understand the needs of the community. When he introduced us to the local people, everything became easier. We are strangers crying out for a new way of seeing something as intimate and personal as sight. But when someone from the community introduces us, we become trustworthy.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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