PANIPAT, India — Shivam Kumar's failing eyesight was manageable at first. To better see the chalkboard, the 12-year-old moved to the front of the classroom, but in time, the indignities piled up.
Increasingly blurry vision forced him to give up flying kites and then cricket, after he was repeatedly whacked by balls he could no longer see. The constant squinting gave him headaches, and he came to dread walking home from school.
"Sometimes I don't see a motorbike until it's almost in my face," he said.
As his grades flagged, so did his dreams of becoming a pilot. "You can't fly a plane if you're blind," he noted glumly.
The fix for Shivam's declining vision, it turns out, was remarkably simple.
He needed glasses.
More than a billion people around the world need eyeglasses but don't have them, researchers say, an affliction long overlooked on lists of public health priorities. Some estimates put that figure closer to 2.5 billion people. They include thousands of nearsighted Nigerian truck drivers who strain to see pedestrians darting across the road and middle-aged coffee farmers in Bolivia whose inability to see objects up close makes it hard to spot ripe beans for harvest.
Then there the tens of millions of children like Shivam across the world whose families cannot afford an eye exam or the prescription eyeglasses that would help them excel in school.
"Many of these kids are classified as poor learners or just dumb and therefore don't progress at school," said Kovin Naidoo, global director of Our Children's Vision, an organization that provides free or inexpensive eyeglasses across Africa. "That just adds another hurdle to countries struggling to break the cycle of poverty."