By Kirk Petersen
There are an estimated 2.5 billion people in the world who do not have access to an optometrist. An Episcopalian in Maryland has found a way to deliver eyeglasses to 40,000 of them, and he has his sights set on more.
While serving as a Marine Corps officer, Kevin White found himself in charge of the Department of Defense’s humanitarian efforts for Africa and Eastern Europe. On a trip to Morocco, a medical team was distributing donated eyeglasses to people who needed them.
“It was really disappointing, the inefficiencies of those systems,” he said. “Very few people got 20-20 vision in both eyes, and people were literally taking the frame that they liked as opposed to the prescription they needed. I said there has got to be a better way.”
So he drew on his science and engineering background to create a system that enables a person with no professional training to determine the necessary correction, pop the appropriate lenses into a frame, and send a patient on his or her way in about 15 minutes — at a cost of about $5 a pair.
The key to the system is called the USee vision-screening tool, which White invented. It’s essentially an eyeglass frame with two long, vertical optical strips that gradually change prescription from top to bottom. The patient uses dials to adjust the strips, one eye at a time, to the position providing the clearest vision.
Then the person administering the test can read the prescription off the strips and select the lenses from a kit. There’s only one style of frames and one size of lens, so everything is interchangeable. The frames come in black, brown or blue, so the patient does get some choice. The blue ones are kind of jazzy.
But how is it possible the glasses cost only $5 a pair?
“Glasses are one of the most marked-up products,” White said. “Mostly, that’s because of the infrastructure that it takes to deliver those eyeglasses,” including brick-and-mortar stores and expensive optometry equipment. The lenses are all made in China, in the same plants that make lenses for fashion brands.
There are limitations to the system, of course. The lenses don’t correct for astigmatism, a fairly common problem caused by an irregularly shaped cornea. And of course if a patient has cataracts or other severe eyesight issues, they need conventional eye care.
But White said more than 90% of the patients they serve can be corrected at least to 20-40, which is the World Health Organization’s standard for allowing a person to drive a vehicle.
White’s company, Global Vision 2020, partners with governments, non-governmental and faith-based organizations to distribute the glasses. Since the USee prototype was developed in 2015, White said 40,000 glasses have been distributed in 39 countries.
The pace really picked up in January 2018, when White won a $1 million Creator Award from WeWork, a company that provides shared workspaces and services for startups. “We were quite frugal with that,” White said. They used the money “to build a company, to get the USee to full-scale production, to have some stocks and inventory. We built a viable company.”
White and his family worship at Christ Church Episcopal in Easton, Maryland, and the church has been involved in the effort from the start. A timeline on the company’s website notes that early prototypes of the glasses were tested on volunteers from Christ Church, and the church has distributed glasses on a number of mission trips.
“My wife went on one of them to Mexico a number of years ago, and my son went on the Christ Church mission trip this summer to Peru. He was 14 at the time,” White said. His travels have not permitted him to accompany the church on mission trips.
TLC asked White how his faith is connected to his work. He said he sees his role as “helping the poorest of the poor… get something that I had when I was 7. I got a pair of glasses when I was 7. I have two sons, both have glasses. I’ve spent a lot of time in the developing world, especially in Africa, and to see a child who is 20-400 — who essentially can’t see, if he stretches his arm out in front of him, his fingertips are blurry — struggling through life… I think God wants everybody to have an opportunity to enjoy their life.”