What Do Blind People See? Levels of Vision Explained

Medically Reviewed By Ann Marie Griff, O.D.

What blind people see can vary widely. Some people have total blindness, while others are partially blind and can see features such as light or vague shapes. The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not consider everyone with a visual impairment to be blind. Official definitions of blindness generally refer to a severe visual impairment in both eyes.

Still, some people who meet official definitions of blindness have some level of vision.

This article explains what blind people may be able to see, including light and color perception, and further support for vision loss.

What do blind people see?

An abstract illustration of an eye in blue paint.
Oxana Pervomay/Stocksy United

The SSA’s definition of statutory blindness is having either of the following features in your better eye:

  • having a visual acuity of 20/200 or less when using corrective glasses
  • having a visual field with an angle of 20 degrees or less

This means that some people considered blind by the SSA may have some degree of vision or pick up on some visual information — but less than the amounts above. Some people refer to this as experiencing partial blindness.

If you are partially blind, you may be able to see colors, shapes, or changes in light. Other visual impairments can include:

  • haziness or cloudiness
  • blurred vision
  • wavy lines or spots in your central vision
  • limited peripheral or side vision
  • impaired vision in dark lighting
  • difficulty seeing colors

Other people considered blind by the SSA have total blindness, meaning they cannot see anything or do not perceive visual information. Around 15% Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of people with visual impairments have total blindness.

Learn more about the definition of blindness and where to find support.

How blindness affects light perception

Some partially blind people may still have light perception.

Someone who has light perception can perceive the presence or lack of light and changes in the level of light. You may still be able to determine the difference between:

  • light and dark
  • daytime and nighttime
  • the general source and direction of light

For example, you may be able to walk toward a lit lamp in a dark room.

On the other hand, total blindness means you have no light perception — sometimes abbreviated as NLP. However, contrary to popular belief, totally blind people do not see only black or darkness. While they have no light perception, they may still be able to tell whether a room is light or dark.

Learn more about vision loss, including its types, symptoms, and outlook.

How blindness affects color perception

If you are partially blind, you may be able to process some information about color, such as changes in tone or color density.

Totally blind people cannot see color. However, people who developed total blindness later in life may remember what colors look like.  

Philosophers have argued that while people who were born totally blind may understand concepts about color, they cannot imagine color visually.

However, a 2021 review suggests that sighted and blind people may share some color understanding.

For example, people may share similar intuitions about which objects have consistent colors and make similar predictions about new objects. Researchers believe just living among people who talk about color may be enough for blind people to understand some ideas about color.

Vision in dreams

What a blind person sees in their dreams Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source may depend on their level of vision and when they develop blindness.

Blindness and vision loss may affect vision in dreams in the following ways:

  • People who previously had vision can sometimes have vivid visual dreams. However, the frequency of visual dreams may decrease the longer a person experiences blindness.
  • If you developed blindness later in life, how much vision you have in dreams may be related to how much vision you have when awake.
  • Partially blind people who retain color and light perception may be able to form some visual impressions in their dreams. Visual impressions refer to a feeling of having perceived visual information.

A 2021 review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source suggests totally blind people do not have visual dreams. Instead, their dreams may consist of sounds, emotional experiences, or touch sensations.

Also, there have been some cases of people who are blind from birth who experience visual imagery in dreams.

Support and aids

Certain tools can help boost vision for some people with low vision or partial blindness, such as:

  • large or bold text
  • color contrast
  • brighter lighting
  • magnifying devices

Many approaches may help blind people visualize or gain information about their surroundings. These may include:

  • audio description, narrated descriptions of a location or visual content
  • braille, a reading system using raised shapes to represent letters
  • echolocation, producing sounds and listening to how they echo to create a mental picture of your surroundings

Some people also use their sense of touch to gain information about their surroundings.

Summary

What blind people can see varies widely.

If you have partial blindness, you may be able to see colors, shapes, and light. People with total blindness cannot see anything but may be able to tell whether a room is light or dark.

Talk with a doctor if you have any questions about using visual aids or would like more support with blindness.

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Medical Reviewer: Ann Marie Griff, O.D.
Last Review Date: 2024 Jun 10
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