What's the legal definition of blindness?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 14 2008 3:23 PM

Legally Blind?

How bad is David Paterson's vision?

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

David Paterson. Click image to expand.
David Paterson

We're looking for a new Explainer—click here to apply for the job.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced on Wednesday that he would step down from office effective March 17. The man who will replace him, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, will be the first legally blind governor in U. S. history. What does it mean to be legally blind?

Your vision is 20/200 or worse in your best eye, even with corrective lenses or surgery. According to the federal statute that defines legal blindness, a person also merits the designation if he or she suffers from severe tunnel vision, with a visual field that measures at most 20 degrees in diameter. (An average person can see about 160 degrees without rotating his head.) In either case, however, the blind person must suffer that impairment for at least 12 continuous months. The government also won't recognize any disability that resulted from the commission of a felony or the ensuing prison term. So if Spitzer ends up in the slammer for, say, illegal structuring and then has his eyes gouged out in a prison fight, he may not meet the federal definition for legal blindness.

A blind person may also be left off the government rolls if the source of his impairment was central as opposed to peripheral. That is to say, someone who was rendered virtually blind as a result of brain damage—someone whose cortex couldn't make sense of a visual scene, for example—would not be considered "legally blind," so long as his eyeballs themselves were functioning normally.

The strict definition now on the books wasn't codified until the 1960s, although federal protection for the blind began with the Social Security Act in 1935. The act required that each state establish an agency to provide financial assistance to people with debilitating vision impairments. The legally blind are also protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which ensures that they be accommodated in the workplace. Since World War II, the legally blind have also been allowed a special deduction (or, at one point, an exemption) on their federal income taxes. (Some states give additional tax benefits.)

In some states, legally blind people are prohibited from operating automobiles; in others, they may obtain a special driver's license with restrictions on when and where it can be used. * In Texas, you can get a hunting license no matter what your vision (although to use it, you'll need an assistant), and many states offer free lifetime fishing licenses to the legally blind.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2009: The article originally stated that legally blind people can never obtain a driver's license. In most states, they can apply for a restricted driver's license, as long as their visual acuity exceeds a legal limit with the aid of a bioptic telescopic device.(Return to the corrected sentence.)


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.