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SOCAP11 Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: David Schafran, NETRA (India)

SOCAP September 2, 2011

Quick. Take someone’s glasses off his/her face.

I promise I have a reason for this. Just do it.  They will most certainly get upset at you, but I want you to ask them exactly why they are upset at you for taking away their glasses.  They might just simply say, “Because I need them to see!” Obviously true, but it’s about more than that. I want you to probe into what about their daily life would become challenging by not using their glasses.
We tend to take glasses for granted, but just imagine what it would be like to see the world with blurry vision. How would your life change? What would your favorite hobbies, your work, and your social interactions be like with blurry vision?
I suspect that after going through this exercise, you would agree that clear vision allows us to enjoy life to the fullest.  I would additionally say that…
Without sight, we cannot live up to our full potential.

As children, we rely on clear vision to learn how to read, write, and socialize with our peers; it is fundamental to our cognitive and social development, the healthy development of our eyes (see amblyopia), our education, and directly affects our professional prospects for the future. If you were one of the millions of youths around the world who struggled in school because you couldn’t see the board, you know the impact of finally getting glasses.
As adults, we rely on clear vision to read and write, perform manual tasks, and enjoy the beauty of the world. Depending on our line of work, clear vision has a direct effect on our livelihood and independence.  If you are one of the millions around the world who lost your job or substantial income due to vision loss, you know the impact of getting corrected.
Because eye sight is so fundamental to our lives, eyeglasses were created hundreds of years ago to correct our vision, and more recently a multi-billion dollar optometric industry spawned to provide us with glasses and full eye care. What a relief that we have such a wonderful solution to such a debilitating problem!  But that’s not the end of the story…
Over 1/2 billion people do not have glasses who need them.

While many of us are fortunate enough to have reasonable access to eye care in the form of local optical shops or online eye glass retailers, much of the world is still living without eye care. In fact, over 1/2 billion people around the world who need glasses are not getting them — roughly 90% from the developing world, but also a significant number from poor and rural areas in the United States and other developed nations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that quality eye-care is rare because existing solutions are both expensive and require a trained technician/optometrist to administer eye tests.
This is especially prohibitive in countries such as India where there are barely 10,000 optometrists for a country of 1.2 billion people — that’s 1 optometrist for every 120,000 Indians!  In order to get glasses, people need to be made aware that they have a problem through the use of a reliable diagnostic tool that can provide a prescription for glasses, and then have access to the glasses themselves. While eyeglasses cost as little as $2 to manufacture, reliable eye diagnostic services are hard to find in low and middle income countries.
Existing eye diagnostic tools for refractive conditions such as the auto-refractor, retinoscope and trial lens kit are not reaching enough people because they require trained professionals to operate and/or are too expensive.

Auto-refractors cost at least $5,000 for a quality one and are unsuitable for remote usage as they are large and malfunction in harsh conditions.  Retinoscopes and trial lens kits with snellen charts require significant training and experience (i.e. trained optometrists) to produce accurate results, and are not networked to service providers when used in remote regions. Trial lens kits with snellen charts also require controlled environments to produce accurate results.
Even where diagnostic facilities are available, it may cost anywhere from $5 to up to $20 for a standard visit to a clinic, including the opportunity cost of losing a day’s wage, transportation costs, and optometrist fees — a significant limitation for the majority that live on less than $4 dollars a day in the most impacted regions of the world.
Loss of vision is a key driver of illiteracy and poverty, carrying with it a significant societal stigma, risk of personal injury, as well as contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty and abysmal standards of living.

And while life-threatening diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and malaria receive substantial attention and funding, uncorrected refractive error is generally ignored by the global health establishment.
Without access to accurate and affordable eye tests, people with the top two causes of preventable blindness in the world – uncorrected refractive error and cataracts – will continue living without knowing that they even have a curable condition, let alone getting glasses or surgery to treat them. The economic and social cost of uncorrected vision conditions will only continue to rise without a proper solution. We propose a new solution that empowers millions by bringing vision to the doorstep of every person…
A new solution: An eye exam for everyone, on a phone.

Coming from MIT Media Lab, NETRA is the most affordable mobile eye diagnostic ever made. A combination of a mobile phone and a clip-on eyepiece, NETRA allows anyone to quickly measure their own eyes and get a prescription for glasses as well as a diagnosis for cataracts, with minimal instruction. Through mobile connectivity, our system allows users to easily access back end service providers and caregivers for consultation and treatment, enabling a complete solution from awareness to treatment.  Our aim is to empower hundreds of millions around the globe by bringing vision to the doorstep of the under-served and general public.
After taking the glasses off of the person near you, you (hopefully) gave them back. Supporting and spreading the word about NETRA is an opportunity for you to help us empower millions around the globe by bringing vision to the people! Visit us at to learn more.

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