The National Optometric Association: Making Optometry More Accessible
Making optometry more accessible for over 50 years
There are approximately 60,000 eye care professionals in the U.S. today. Of those, only 2%, or about 1,200, are Black.
February is Black History Month — the perfect time to highlight the people and organizations that help minority communities get eye care and thrive in the eye care profession.
The National Optometric Association is the largest professional organization representing minority optometrists and optometry students. It has more than 800 members in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, in a variety of clinical settings and studying at 23 schools and colleges of optometry.
History of the National Optometric Association
Black eye doctors C. Clayton Powell, OD, and John L. Howlette, OD, believed that Black eye care professionals needed their own national organization. They wanted something separate from the American Optometric Association (AOA) that would focus on issues that were important to Black eye doctors. These included recruiting minority students for optometry school and supporting optometrists in minority communities.
After working to generate support for the idea, in 1969, Drs. Powell and Howlette invited 25 Black eye doctors from around the country to meet in Richmond, Virginia, and launch the National Optometric Association (NOA).
At the time, Powell and Howlette were both members of the AOA, the national (and predominantly white) organization that supports eye doctors and increases access to eye care. Some AOA members didn’t think the NOA was needed because Black eye care professionals could be (and many already were) AOA members. Powell explained that while Black eye doctors could join the national AOA, they had to belong to their local AOA chapter first and were often not accepted.
While some feared the NOA would compete against the AOA, the intention was actually to give Black optometrists a louder voice, both within the AOA and outside of it.
How the NOA fulfills its mission
The NOA’s mission statement is: “Advancing the visual health of minority populations.” The organization works to achieve this through the following objectives:
Minority recruitment – The NOA has established relationships with optometry schools across the country to increase the number of minority students and minority graduates.
Assistance to optometric organizations – The NOA works with other organizations to advance and bring attention to optometry as a profession.
Assistance to graduates and practitioners – The organization helps minority optometrists find jobs, stay up to date with their knowledge and skills, and get financial aid. The NOA has awarded more than $750,000 in scholarships and travel grants to optometry students.
Delivery of care – The organization uses its resources to deliver and expand eye care services in communities with little to no care available.
“Three Silent Killers” initiative
The top diseases that cause blindness in racial and ethnic minorities are diabetes, glaucoma and high blood pressure (hypertension). They are often called “silent killers” because most people don’t have any symptoms in the early stages. The NOA’s “Three Silent Killers” initiative raises awareness about these diseases and on the importance of getting annual comprehensive eye exams.
Black adults are 60% more likely than white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes, a chronic condition that can affect a person’s blood sugar levels. Diabetes can lead to various eye problems, including diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema.
If you have diabetes, it’s important to work with your doctor to keep the condition under control and to get a diabetic eye exam as often as your eye doctor recommends.
Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that can damage your optic nerves — the pathways that connect your eyes to your brain. In almost all cases, glaucoma is caused when a person’s eye pressure is too high.
Black people develop glaucoma five times more often than other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., and go blind six times more often. The disease also happens about 10 years earlier in Black people and progresses faster.
High blood pressure (also called hypertension) happens when the force of the blood flowing through the blood vessels is chronically too high. High blood pressure affects 55% of Black adults in the U.S.
Hypertension can cause serious eye problems, including hypertensive retinopathy, choroidopathy and optic neuropathy. It has also been linked to cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye complications.
The “Three Silent Killers” initiative has educated tens of thousands of people about high blood pressure, glaucoma and diabetes.
The NOA has programs that support its mission of expanding eye health services for minorities:
The ACHIEVE campaign (All Children’s Health Initiative for Eye and Vision Excellence) raises awareness among minority parents about how vision impacts child development and learning, as well as why regular vision screenings and comprehensive eye exams are important.
The HBCU Visioning the Future mentorship program identifies and supports Black students at historically Black colleges and universities who are interested in optometry. Mentors aid students through the optometry school application process, foster retention and promote graduation, provide networking opportunities, then facilitate professional development and career advancement.
National Optometric Student Association
The National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), part of the NOA, encourages the development of professional and social relationships between students across optometry programs and other health science programs.
As a service organization made up of more than 1,000 optometry students, NOSA also works to increase access to eye care for minority and underserved communities.
The National Optometric Foundation
The National Optometric Foundation (NOF) is the philanthropic arm of the National Optometric Association. Through student scholarships, matriculation initiatives, and ocular health education and awareness programs, the NOF works to find long-term solutions to eye health problems that affect minority populations.
Since 1975, the NOF has provided more than $500,000 for student scholarships and programs that support eye health education and awareness.
Future of the NOA
Since the NOA was founded, the number of minority optometry students, graduates and practicing eye doctors has continued to grow. As numbers have increased, the association has shifted more of its efforts to bringing vision services to communities where little or no eye care is available. The NOA also works to educate people about the importance of getting regular eye exams and treatment to help prevent vision loss.
History of the National Optometric Association. National Optometric Association. Accessed January 2023.
Factors contributing to higher incidence of diabetes for black Americans. NIH Research Matters. January 2018.
Diabetes and African Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. March 2021.
African Americans and glaucoma. Glaucoma Research Foundation. February 2022.
Estimated hypertension prevalence, treatment, and control among U.S. adults tables. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 2021.
High Blood Pressure Among Black People. American Heart Association. March 2022.
Page published on Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Page updated on Tuesday, February 7, 2023