Lifestyle & Belief

Crossed Eyes: Myth of Good Luck is Bad News for Visually Impaired in India

In a slum on the west side of the Indian capital, New Delhi, children help support their families by selling whatever they find in the trash. They pick up things they see on the street, too.

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But 13-year-old Hakim Ali has a much harder time doing this than other kids. He is severely cross-eyed, and that causes his vision to go dark and hazy.

Ophthalmologists say as many as four percent of children in India have crossed eyes. In fact, Hakim isn't the only one in his family with the condition. Four brothers and sisters suffer from it too.

Hakim's mother says the family hasn't sought treatment for the children, even though local hospitals provide it for free. She says the family is so focused on trying to make a living that there is no time to worry about anything else.

But that may not be the only reason the children haven't been treated.

"If a child is born with crossed eyes, it is considered to bring good luck to the family," says Manish Kumar of ORBIS, an international organization that supports eye clinics around India that offer corrective surgery for crossed eyes.

Kumar says the belief that a cross-eyed child brings good fortune often gets in the way of his organization's efforts.
"In many communities in India as well as in Nepal, this belief actually prevents the family or the parents to take the children for medical attention at an early age or maybe even later."

And if parents wait too long, it can be too late to correct a child's vision.

Suma Ganesh, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Dr. Shroff's Charity Eye Hospital in Delhi, explains that children with crossed eyes can experience double vision, which causes the brain to suppress one image.

"The child not only loses vision, but also loses depth perception," she says. "These get lost over a period of time"
So medical charities are trying to get parents to take the condition seriously.

Manish Kumar of ORBIS says he doesn't try to convince families that they're wrong about a child bringing good luck. Instead, his social workers warn parents about the harm that could come from delaying treatment.

"They say, 'Look at your child, right in front of you. He's not able to see now. Maybe in [the] course of time he might become blind…. As a mother, would you like to see your son blind?'" he says. "They try to play with that kind of an emotion. That has worked in a better way."

And that's the appeal Kumar makes to the family of 13-year-old Hakim Ali, in the Delhi slum.

"Surely, you'd want your son to be able to see well, don't you?" he says to the boy's mother.

Hakim Ali's uncle, Ibrahim, says he'd always thought having an eye condition like this was the result of fate and that it was something his nephew would just have to live with. But the conversation appears to change his mind.

"I feel bad for him," Ibrahim says, acknowledging that his nephew can't ride a bike or lead a normal life because of his eyes. So Ibrahim agrees to take the boy in for treatment.

That sounds like good news, but the social workers from the charity say their job isn't finished yet. Once they leave, parents often change their minds. So the workers will keep calling on Hakim Ali's family until the boy actually shows up at the hospital.

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