Eye Health in Sri Lanka

Optometrist and Global Ideas alumni Shay Zhang was seeking career and life perspective which lead her to rural Sri Lanka and a quest to improve eye health for the local community.

A wise friend once said ‘the un-aimed arrow never misses its mark’. I never sought to set up an eye care program, least of all in Sri Lanka.

In my final year studying optometry, I interned with my University professor who is a specialist in visual rehabilitation for a rare eye disease called keratoconus. I joined his practice, rapidly specialised, and became an associate. I was 25 years old and on the brink of accepting partnership, when I realised that this may not be what I want.

To clear my head and get some perspective, I went searching for yoga and found the Ulpotha yoga retreat, an off-the-grid yoga retreat and social enterprise in rural Sri Lanka. I never expected to feel so deeply at home in this peaceful and beautiful community, and after resigning from my job I returned back to Sri Lanka to manage Ulpotha for a season in 2016.

Living in Ulpotha, I was surprised to find spectacles rarely being worn by the villagers, despite many of them being in the presbyopic age-group, in which reading vision naturally weakens. I also discovered that Ulpotha is in a region with the third-highest prevalence of preventable low vision and blindness, and is several hours from the nearest eye care centre. In a bid to bring something of value to a community that takes care of its visitors with a charming generosity and warmth, I decided to bring eye care and refractive correction to Ulpotha.

Having no idea how to organise such a program, I tapped into my networks in Australia and sought advice from people in various industries. It is when I spoke with a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, who organises yearly outreach programs for students and clinicians in conjunction with Global Hand charity, that the idea became more tangible.

The challenge with bringing eye care to this region lies in the stigmatisation of wearing spectacles. Despite the high prevalence of cataract, sunglasses are rarely worn by rural Sri Lankans who see it as a sign of elitism. Moreover, vision and eye problems are generally viewed as “not important enough” to seek care. Poor vision from refractive error, cataract and other preventable eye problems are often undiagnosed and untreated.

Together with Helping Hands, Ulpotha retreat and Melbourne Uni, the goal is to pilot a charity program in 2019 which will deliver eye care to the region. Over time, we hope the program will become a self-sustaining, not-for-profit model of care. We are already involving local optometrists and villagers in the program, and are looking to set up an affordable pricing system that allows us to sustain a consistent and quality service to all who seek our care.

Shay Zhang is a Melbourne based optometrist who manages and works at the Ulpotha yoga retreat in Sri Lanka 4-6 weeks each year.

Shay has delivered a series of seminars in Sri Lanka with the Sri Lankan Optometrists’ Association and is currently setting up a not-for-profit in Sri Lanka with Global Hand charity, Ulpotha yoga retreat and the University of Melbourne.

Shay is a former Global Ideas volunteer and will be assisting to deliver the next Design Jam session on 14 April, tickets are still available.