November/December 2019 Issue
October 25, 2019

5 Questions for SUNY optometry professor Joan Portello

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
joan portello
Caption: Joan Portello is vice president of the UUP chapter of the SUNY College of Optometry.

1. You supervise grad students at the University Eye Center and see how changes in our habits and environment affect vision. Should educators and parents be concerned about increased screen time by adolescents and teens?

The short answer is “yes.” Using small screens at arm’s length or shorter for extended periods of time, or viewing screens at longer distances for long periods of time, increase the focusing and converging demands upon the eye, and our visual system.

Electronic devices can cause eyestrain and visual discomfort for many of us, including young children. People blink less and their eyes become less lubricated, causing long term structural damage.

Optometrists are able to look at the oil glands and cells that aid cellular regeneration. In many young people, (these) glands are diminished or eliminated. We believe this is caused by screen time. Fortunately, if caught early enough, some relief is possible.

2. How can undetected vision problems lead to issues in school?

Problems of eye tracking, ocular motility and binocular dysfunction can have effects on reading and our ability to learn and absorb information. The simple issues can cascade into a whole range of academic and social problems that could perhaps be circumvented. When dealing with young people, a comprehensive visual exam is always essential.

3. October is School Vision Health Month in New York. Do you work with school-based vision centers?

Vision and eye health in children have been related to academic performance and confidence building. The college is often asked to support eye screenings at schools and community centers to help provide an earlier identification of potential vision issues. SUNY College of Optometry and the University Eye Center invested in creating a new Center for Pediatric Eye Care which will open in early 2020 and focus on expanding our ability to care for the youngest patients.

4. What are some of the community service initiatives you participate in that improve access to health care?

Health care and eye care are about access and affordability. Eyes can reveal underlying health problems. For clinic patients who need financial assistance, help is available through various sources. Located in New York City, the UEC conducts more than 85 eye screenings across the boroughs through our community outreach program. The college also hosts an annual Health and Wellness Expo; this year 1,000 people received free screenings for vision, dental care and podiatry.

5. You’re also active in your union. How did you come to serve as vice president of your UUP chapter?

I come from a family of union members. My father encouraged me to join a union because it benefits workers to keep checks and balances between employers and employees.

As an executive group we actively encourage new faculty to become part of the union. For one, they are benefitting from the progress our union has made from tenaciously pursuing and obtaining health insurance, pension plans and workplace benefits.

Second, the union is a resource that provides a buffer, advice and representation when a member has an issue with our employer.

I have been a member for 31 years! I encourage new faculty to be part of the team that binds us together.

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