Photograph of Luci Johnson Nugent

Lucy Johnson Nugent

When President Lyndon Johnson was in office, his daughter, Luci Johnson, suffered from poor grades and learning difficulties due to learning related vision problems. Her story shows us that anyone, regardless of status or income, may struggle with visual or perceptual dysfunction. Due to poor vision screenings, most of the these problems are missed in childhood, and continue through adulthood.

The following story was written by Luci Johnson Nugent and appeared in
Family Circle Magazine. The Optometric Extension Foundation has generously given us their permission to reprint it.

At 16, I was an underachiever in school and had been most of my life. I had been told- as the result of every kind of test imaginable- that I was a relatively bright child. There were times when I actually believed it and would go home and spend hours writing a paper I thought so brilliant a special assembly would be called to have it read- only to have my teacher tell me, "Oh, Luci can't you see where you made mistakes?" (But that was the crux of the problem. I couldn't really see.)

The fact that we use the word "see" to mean understand indicates just how important vision is to our learning process. Here I was, the younger daughter of the man who was then Vice President - and a few months later became President- of the United States. My father certainly had the desire and the means to have my health problems diagnosed and treated. And yet, I had a major visual problem that went undetected for many years. I came from a family of achievers and worked diligently at school, but no matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to rise from C to even a C+. Not only were my academic abilities affected, but because my eyes did not work well together, my total coordination was poor. And because I was physically uncoordinated, I was inevitably the last choice for team games throughout my childhood.

And so, at 16, I was on my way to dropping out. You can't face the frustration of not being able to succeed indefinitely without wanting to run from the scene of you failure. Fortunately for me, my problem became so acute that I started blacking out during tests. Finally, as a last-ditch effort, Dr. Janet Travell, then White House physician and a lovely lady, suggested that I visit a local optometrist, Dr. Robert A. Kraskin. We had never considered going this route before because I apparently had no acuity problem. (In fact, the Snellen eye chart indicated that I had 20/20 vision.)

Dr. Kraskin told me that my eye coordination was poor. In response to my request, he supplied me with the following information about my type of visual difficulty:

"This type of problem arises initially as a reaction to stress created by the use of the eyes for close work and, in turn, brings about an interference in the coordination of the visual system. In other words, there results a dysfunction in the coordination of both eyes which reduces and lessens the ability to derive meaning from that which is seen. Not only is reading efficiency restricted, but there is also difficulty in general coordination activities, such as sports, which are highly dependent upon the use of visual information. Thus, hand-eye activities are limited. More frequently than not, there are no measureable ocular defects (such as nearsightedness) and 20/20 visual acuity usually is measured.

"Fortunately, this type of visual problem can be alleviated. Generally, glasses alone will not solve the problem, although the use of proper glasses for close work is an essential aspect of the proper therapy. To alleviate the problem, a program of activities and exercises is recommended."

When I began my visual training course I was probably the most belligerent patient Dr. Kraskin ever knew. (Since I later worked in his office, I can tell you this attitude is not uncommon among people who are frustrated by visual difficulties.) I complained constantly. I couldn't see the sense of being yanked from my study hall to do seemingly senseless exercises- like drawing circles on chalk boards, or writing down numbers flashed from a tachistoscope onto a screen, or putting pegs in proper holes, or tracing pictures through a machine called a cheiroscope. (Actually Dr. Kraskin was teaching me to use my eyes as a team.)

Then came that November day in 1963 that none of us will forget. As a nation we endured great trauma and transition. As an individual whose father's responsibility it was to lead our nation, I felt the tension of the time acutely. My adjustment was quite a demanding one. In fact, my teacher expected my grades to stay on the low level they were- or even go down. Instead they rose a grade point per subject- and then kept on rising!

From then on, my grades improved and a year-and-a-half later I had gone from Ds to Bs. During my freshman year at college, I made the honor roll- and for someone who had been on scholastic probation for so long, this achievement was a thrilling one indeed. Also, my physical coordination noticeably improved. I was still far from being an athlete- but I'd come a long way. Then, I had a long way to come.

During the summer of 1964, I began to reflect on how my life had been radically changed by my visual training. The memory of my early resentment and rebelliousness was still vivid- and I felt that I could not just reap the benefits I'd had and walk away. I knew the frustration that students in visual training were going through- having faced these problems myself- and decided to work for Dr. Kraskin as an assistant during the summer. I worked that summer and the following summer, while I continued to take training myself. During that time, I saw a bright little boy who was having difficulty in kindergarten transformed from an angry failure into a happy, successful student. I saw youngsters like myself go from failing grades to the honor roll. I saw young men eager to be military pilots make such marked improvement that they finally achieved their wish. One young girl who won my heart had had two unsuccessful operations to correct strabismus (crossed eyes). With persistent effort, she achieved a marked degree of control.

Out of my own personal experience first as a patient and then later as assistant, I found a permanent vocation in helping the visually disadvantaged child. When a preschool vision screening program, Volunteers for Vision, was born I was asked to be national honorary chairman and later became a member of their board of directors.

Since the time I first saw Dr. Kraskin, I have graduated from high school, have attended college, have married and have been blessed with two lovely children. As a mother, my interest in VFV has not dimmed at all; it has only grown. In 1969 I formed a local chapter of VFV in Austin, Texas where I now live. During our first six months in operation, we screened 2100 children.

I speak as an interested mother, but I am by no means an authority in this field. My only hope is that this simple testing, which only detects gross visual problems, will serve as an impetus to get parent to take their children to a vision specialist of their own choosing. For, just because your child passes a test, he is not necessarily problem free. The three major tests- the Keystone Telebinocular, the Titmus Vision Screener, and the Massachusetts Vision Test Screener- are not substitutes for a professional examination.

As a parent, there are many things you can do to promote good vision. Start at birth by hanging toys and mobiles over the crib to develop hand-eye coordination. Later, encourage your child to use proper lighting and posture when he reads, and to maintain adequate distance for reading, studying or watching TV.

There are also danger signals a parent can look for. Do your child's eyes frequently "run," as if he were crying? Does one eye turn involuntarily? Does your child have persistent sties about his eyes? What about his reading habits? Does he (or she) experience headaches or nausea; does print blur after only short reading periods? Does he see double, squint or omit words or letters when writing?

Does he have hand-eye coordination problems? One indication of this is a need to touch things in order to understand or interpret information.

Helping someone to see better is a magnificent achievement, particularly since seeing and understanding are considered synonymous in our society. For as I once pointed out in a speech I made a few years ago, if the key to a better society is education, then the key to a better education is better vision. If you don't have that key, you can't open the door to a better life.