Background: Subthreshold depression and anxiety are common in the growing population of visually impaired older adults and increase the risk of full-blown depressive or anxiety disorders. Adequate treatment may prevent the development of depression or anxiety in this high risk group.Method/design: A stepped-care programme was developed based on other effective interventions and focus groups with professionals and patient representatives of three low vision rehabilitation organisations in the Netherlands and Belgium. The final programme consists of four steps: 1) watchful waiting, 2) guided self-help, 3) problem solving treatment, 4) referral to general practitioner. The (cost-)effectiveness of this programme is evaluated in a randomised controlled trial. Patients (N = 230) are randomly assigned to either a treatment group (stepped-care) or a control group (usual care). The primary outcome is the incidence of depressive and anxiety disorders, measured with the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI).Discussion: Preventive interventions for depression and anxiety have received little attention in the field of low vision. A stepped-care programme that focuses on both depression and anxiety has never been investigated in visually impaired older adults before. If the intervention is shown to be effective, this study will result in an evidence based treatment programme to prevent depression or anxiety in patients from low vision rehabilitation organisations. The pragmatic design of the study greatly enhances the generalisability of the results. However, a possible limitation is the difficulty to investigate the contribution of each individual step. © 2013 van der Aa et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.