If we have vision, we can transform universal access to spectacles

Sumrana Yasmin, May 2024

Evidence tells us that an eye examination and the right pair of glasses can be life-changing for someone with uncorrected refractive error.

We also know that it’s a highly cost-effective solution to the world’s leading cause of vision impairment.

I see time and time again how a pair of spectacles can be transformational to people’s lives at all ages – enabling them to see the board in class and engage in learning, to earn a living, and to maintain their independence as they get older.

It’s about time that we ask why there’s still a huge unmet global need for refractive error services. Why do only 36% of people with a distance vision impairment have access to an appropriate pair of glasses?

This needs to change and with the launch of the World Health Organization’s SPECS 2030 initiative on May 14 and 15, we can feel the momentum building for a positive change.

Arthur in the classroom, smiling while wearing his new glasses.

Sightsavers joins WHO’s vision initiative

SPECS 2030 aims to tackle the world’s biggest cause of visual impairment by improving global access to eye care.

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Patience from Liberia wearing her new glasses, whilst standing next to her mother, betty.
Patience (right) received a pair of glasses to correct refractive error after an eye screening at her school. © Sightsavers/Carielle Doe

Why are these services not available?

The first World Report on Vision in 2019 by the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted that at least 2.2 billion people across the globe have a vision impairment. And out of this, there are almost one billion people who have a vision impairment that can still be addressed. We know that based on the projections, these numbers are going to increase.

What is stopping people from getting the services they need? The list of barriers can be a long one, but a few key challenges include limited access to eye health services and spectacles, particularly in rural communities; not having enough qualified personnel, ownership and commitment from the government; limited financing; and low awareness about the importance of eye health and good vision.

We also know that women, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups are more affected by it because they have less access to care. And COVID-19 and its long-term implications further aggravated the situation. So, it’s right to say that we are in a global eye health crisis and we need to do something about it.

Arthur reads a book with his father
Since receiving his glasses, 11-year-old Arthur’s reading and writing have improved. © Sightsavers/Carielle Doe

How are we working to improve it?

Our programmes

The goal of our programmes is to increase equitable and sustainable access to inclusive and high-quality eye health and refractive error services, and spectacles. Since 2004, Sightsavers has supported 216 million eye examinations and dispensed 6.2 million pairs of spectacles across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean as part of our work in universal health care. We have also supported the training of various eye health professionals to strengthen the delivery of eye care in some of the poorest parts of the world.

At Sightsavers, our principles of partnership and leaving no one behind are at the heart of our eye health and refractive error programming. We also realise that until and unless gaps in evidence and data are addressed, we won’t be able to support the development of high-quality eye health and refractive error services.

So, by applying a system-strengthening approach, we make sure that we engage with all stakeholders to develop services that can be sustainable and then scaled up.

Our advocacy

Investing in eye health is the best investment we can make as individuals and as a society. To achieve this, we need a global commitment to ensure access to eye care for everyone. We need everyone on board to take this agenda forward and we need to link it with achieving universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.

We need national governments and policymakers to prioritise eye care, to make sure that the right resources are allocated to develop and integrate eye health services and provision of spectacles into the health and education systems.

So, we work to raise awareness and advocate for improved access to eye health services. And that these services should be evidence-informed, gender-responsive, climate-resilient, rooted in local context and accessible for all.

Sightsavers’ refractive error strategy

The strategy aims to aims to accelerate access to, and use of, equitable and inclusive refractive services by strengthening health and education systems, leading to long-term sustainable socio-economic impact for individuals, communities and societies.

Read the document
SPECS 2030

Sightsavers is part of WHO’s SPECS 2030 initiative, which envisions a world where everyone with refractive error can access quality, affordable and people-centred refractive error services. Achieving the 40-percentage point increase in the effective coverage of refractive error services is an ambitious target, but one that can be achieved – if we have the vision to make it happen.

With 32 organisations, including Sightsavers, on board, we are using an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach that engages and mobilises all stakeholders at global, regional and national levels. It’s a fact that when we focus our attention on an issue collectively, there’s nothing we can’t do.

So this international movement is an exciting opportunity to build global momentum, catalyse change at the national level, keep our eyes on achieving the target of effective coverage of the refractive error services, and ensure universal access to people-centred refractive error services.


Sumrana Yasmin is Sightsavers’ deputy technical director for eye health. She is based in Pakistan.


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