NEW YORK—VisionSpring, founded in 2001 with the goal of reaching and providing affordable, quality eyeglasses worldwide to people in need, BRAC, an international development organization that works with marginalized communities, and Queen’s University Belfast recently released the findings of their collaborative THRIVE (Tradespeople and Hand-workers Rural Initiative for a Vision-enhanced Economy) study, which found that a pair of reading glasses increases the earnings of people in low-income communities by 33 percent. THRIVE, carried out across rural Bangladesh, is the first randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of reading glasses on income.

No other health-related intervention has reported an effect size as large for income. The THRIVE trial involved 824 people from 15 districts of Bangladesh. The study was carried out in communities significantly engaged in farming and artisan crafts and included participants such as teachers, tailors, shopkeepers and mechanics. Participants were on average age 47 and 48 percent of respondents were female.

The results uncovered many benefits for first-time wearers of reading glasses across a wide variety of rural occupations:

Higher earnings – The monthly median income of an individual who received reading glasses increased from $35.3 to $47.1 within eight months, a difference of 33.4 percent, whereas the control group showed no increase.

Returning to work – Income increases were higher among those who were not working at the start of the study, suggesting that reading glasses helped economically inactive people return to work.  

Not just for people who are literate – Reading glasses are not just for people who can read. Only 35 percent of participants in the study were literate. Reading glasses helped participants accomplish work and household tasks such as threading a needle, weaving and sorting grain.

Quality of life – Wearers experienced a 16 percent improvement on a near vision quality of life index. The index measures factors such as people’s sense of independence and ease of doing daily tasks, such as reading a mobile phone display and seeing the food they are preparing and eating. 

Widespread blurry vision – The trial found a substantial need for near glasses in this working population; 50 percent of those 35 to 65 years-old who had their eyes tested were identified to have presbyopia, the inability to see close up without help from glasses. This underscores the substantial potential for economic benefit with an inexpensive glasses intervention in this large and important group.

Ella Gudwin, CEO of VisionSpring, said, “The THRIVE study reveals that the simple intervention of reading glasses yields outsized impact in terms of income. We encourage governments, philanthropists, development agencies and the private sector to invest in vision correction as livelihood interventions. This evidence-based investment will boost individuals’ earnings as well as generate increased economic output and productivity that is good for communities and the wider economy.”

Nathan Congdon, MD, MPH, Ulverscroft Chair of Global Eye Health at Queen’s University Belfast said, “The findings of the THRIVE study demonstrate the power of reading glasses in helping reduce poverty. For the cost of only a few dollars a pair, reading glasses have a significant and sustained impact on an individual’s earnings and help others get back into work. Where people are vulnerable to poverty, we can have an immediate and dramatic impact on livelihoods through this extremely simple and cost-effective intervention.”

In addition to measuring the impact of reading glasses on worker income, the study highlighted the opportunity to increase access to vision care by training non-medical personnel such as community health workers to conduct basic sight tests and dispense ready-made reading glasses. All the screenings in the trial were conducted by non-medical personnel, as opposed to optometrists.

By demonstrating that reading glasses dispensed by community health workers significantly improved income, THRIVE affirms the efficacy of this approach to improve livelihoods in low-income settings. Last year, the World Health Organization introduced training for community health workers and primary care providers to identify presbyopia, dispense reading glasses and refer for other eye conditions. This is the same task sharing methodology that VisionSpring and BRAC pioneered in 2002 and was used in this study.