The vision on vision is quite blurry

Do you know what CVS is? If you read these lines, you might as well have it. CVS stands for Computer Vision Syndrome. Your optometrist will be happy to oblige if you ask for explanations.

But try to find CVS in your company’s benefit book — even when you yourself are the “company.” Why is it that we care so little about vision in the one occupation which more than any other is based on, and caters to, our ability to see?

Eye care has recently consolidated its status as the Cinderella of the health care industry in Ontario, as it is no longer covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) for people of working age. Employers did not jump to fill in the gap by adjusting benefit policies. These policies have never made special allowances for eye care based on the type of work of the beneficiaries.

While it is an undisputed fact that using the computer eight hours a day or more strains the eye, this did not inspire health care policies such as regular or mandatory eye checks and more generous allowances for eyeglasses.

Those who are subject to CVS seem not to fuss about this issue either. After all, intensive computer usage has a relatively short history and its long-term effects only now start to ignite some interest.

If my personal experience is any indication, using the computer so many hours a day does not tell the whole story of eyestrain. What we do while in front of the computer is the key. For a developer or user of tame mainframe screens, where character mode is king, and up to three colours on a black screen is the norm, the eyestrain does not seem like much. Transition from one screen to the next is not much of a stress to the eye.

But with client-server applications, with a variety of frame sizes, shapes, colours and designs, and, above all, those cute tiny desktop icons, things become very different. My eyes saw the difference immediately.

Things have ‘progressed’ since the Web became prevalent: there seems to be a contest as to which site is able to cram more headlines, pop-ups, animated pictures and other ‘attractions’ on those less than 300 square inches of a screen that scream for our eyes’ attention. Only a few distinguished sites have got it that “less is more” and stick to a simple colour-scheme and a clean, non-aggressive page design.

And we compound the eyestrain problem with our appetite for surfing and our short patience — we like to “flip” Web pages quickly.

Other jurisdictions seem to do better when it comes to eye care. In France, spending more than 20 hours a week in front of a computer screen is recognized as a work hazard. In the UK, there is a push for free eye exams. I have heard that IT companies in Western Europe ensure free exams and one pair of eyeglasses for programmers and the like.

Not sure how things fare in India or other places where a young and driven workforce is aggressively pursuing eye-intensive careers in computers. Eye care specialists teach us all sorts of neat things to do while we work, so that our eyes do not become too strained. We are advised that the eye has to work harder when reading from a screen as opposed to reading from paper, because it has to focus more in order to form the letter image from pixels.

Therefore, among other things, we are supposed to blink frequently, even use fake tears, stare for 20 seconds away from the screen every twenty minutes, and take frequent breaks.

Software has been created that prompts the user to take eye-breaks. Although a study from Cornell University tells us that these breaks increase productivity by a significant margin, I don’t think that eye-friendly software is going to become as widespread as programs that monitor your key strokes, your C: drive or your wanderings on the Internet any time soon.

Sadly, health issues associated with the legitimate usage of computers commands far less concern and action than the illegitimate ones. Maybe things will change as the IT workforce (and the general population of computer users) age and passes this hard-earned insight to the next generation. Or maybe computer screens of the near future will make this a non-issue. Until that happens, we should exercise some vision by thinking more on how we design computer applications and how we use them. 054670

–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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