In community centers and schools across Africa, Kevin White sets up tents and helps people in need access eyeglasses instantly. After an initial screening with an eye chart, the now retired Marine hands over his invention, the USee Vision Kit, which lets the patient turn a dial for each eye until they see clearly. After they pick out frames they like, White then finds the right lens in his kit and snaps them into place. It takes only minutes, and the eyeglasses cost around $5 per person.
In the United States, there’s about one optometrist for every 8,000 people. In many developing nations, though, there can be as few as one optometrist for every 1 million people, making it difficult to screen and provide eyeglasses for those who need them. More than 1 billion people worldwide are living with a vision impairment, according to the World Health Organization, and the majority of those cases could be corrected with glasses.
White saw how difficult it was to distribute eyeglasses to people in developing countries when he helped set up hospitals and other aid facilities as part of his work in the Marines in charge of humanitarian assistance programs in Africa and Eastern Europe. In 2005, he was setting up a hospital in Morocco that was also distributing donated eyeglasses, and he was distraught by the inefficiencies he witnessed. Along with the time and resources necessary to do the eye exams, the donated glasses were of a limited range; many people were picking frames they liked the style of, rather than ones that corresponded with the prescription they needed.
“There’s got to be a better way to do this,” White remembers thinking at the time. “I basically spent the next 15 years of my life coming up with something better.” In January 2019, he completed the manufacturing process for the USee Vision Kit—the winner of the developing world technology category in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards. It’s a device that determines someone’s prescription and allows them to get custom eyeglasses in minutes. With that device, White’s nonprofit, Global Vision 2020, has been able to distribute more than 50,000 pairs of glasses and counting, in partnership with on-the-ground hospital clinics and humanitarian groups, including 4×4 Out Far and Explore 4 Knowledge.
When he started looking for alternatives, his research led him to fluid-filled eyeglasses, which allow the patient to turn a dial and change their prescription. “The benefit was that anyone could do it. The drawback was that very few people wanted to wear the device,” he says. “That was my gap analysis. On the one side, you’ve got this refraction device that really makes it simple to distribute eyeglasses, but very few people wanted to wear them. On the other side, you’ve got conventional glasses that everybody wants to wear, but it takes a doctorate of optometry in order to dispense them.”
Like a pair of binoculars, the USee Vision device lets the wearer turn a dial until their vision comes into focus. Once they can see clearly, they stop turning, and the number on the dial corresponds to a prescription for each eye. Inside the kit, different lenses are organized to correlate with the USee reading. The patient picks out a pair of frames, and then the lenses are snapped into place.
The difference between having impaired vision and being able to see clearly is often the difference between getting an education and not, being able to work productively and not, and even the difference between life and death; poor vision and lack of access to eye exams have been linked to traffic deaths in places such as Nigeria and India. Experts have estimated that a lack of glasses accounts for about $200 billion in losses to the global economy each year.
“I’ve been that 10-year-old kid who didn’t know I needed eyeglasses and had my world changed,” White says, and he’s witnessed firsthand how glasses, and the USee Vision kit, can change someone else’s life. He remembers giving eyeglasses to a 78-year-old woman in Africa whose granddaughter looked after her day and night. “Five days later she was preparing the meals, she was fixing clothes, her granddaughter was back in the fields working, she read to the kids, ” he says. “She became the matriarch of this family for like six bucks worth of eyeglasses.”
The USee Vision kit has completed clinical trials at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and the New England College of Optometry, and other trials are currently in process in Vietnam and Mongolia. White admits he’s not an optometrist, but he’s done this process “hand in hand with the health world.” “My hope is that every pharmacist around the world, every school nurse or school principal, even driver’s license offices have a kit,” he says. “By 2050, half of the world’s children are going to be African-born. . . . If we can help them get a better education and become independent and have hope, I know eyeglasses are just a very, very small part of that, but ask anybody who wears them what is life like without them.”