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My Colorblindness And The Super Sunglasses That Could Fix It

This post is also available in: Portuguese

California tech company EnChroma has created special sunglasses that allow colorblind wearers to see a fuller spectrum of colors for the first time. Unicorn Booty Weekend Editor Devin Bannon decided to reflect on his own colorblindness and what EnChroma glasses could do for him.

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I was four years old the first time I got in “color trouble.” My preschool teacher had given us a picture of a boat on the ocean, and when it came time to color the water, I reached for the purple Mr. Sketch marker, and my teacher scolded me, “This is wrong, Devin. The ocean is not purple. The ocean is blue.”

I remember thinking, “But this color feels right to me.”

Before blue existed, the sea was known as “wine-dark”.

The four-year-old me didn’t know how to process this disconnect, but I vividly remember feeling a very specific kind of confusion, shame and otherness; a feeling that’d become oh-too-familiar over the years. And I eventually learned, like eight percent of men and 0.4 percent of women, I am colorblind.

As with many people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of color deficiency, I’ve been delighted by the recent viral cultural conversations about color, especially over “the dress” — I didn’t fall into either camp. To my eye, it was neither white/gold nor black/blue — it was blue/gold, obviously.

I was seven when I first understood what was going on. After a year or two of being near the top of the class in math, my test scores suddenly plummeted. My mother sat down with me, trying to understand where I was going wrong. We were learning fractions and percentages, using a picture with 100 cars, all of different colors. Fighting back tears, I walked through the test with my mother at home, trying to understand. When she asked me to count the number of green cars, I picked them all out… but I’d included all the red cars too.

There might be a number here. I wouldn't know.
There might be a number here. I wouldn’t know.

Red-green is the mildest and most common variety of color deficiency. My grandfather had it too. He was the only other person I knew growing up who had color trouble.

And, before you ask, NO. That doesn’t mean I can’t distinguish red from green… mostly.

Along with many red-green folks, I usually get confused by colors that contain reds or greens. Like my first misunderstanding of the color of the ocean, I sometimes perceive purples as blues, or greens as browns. I am used to it at this point. I’ve suffered my humiliations, as all colorblind people do, making observations that make others laugh or scratch their heads, but after a while, I got used to it.

As you might expect, I was fascinated to hear that scientists have developed a set of glasses that allow color-blind people to see a fuller version of the color spectrum for the first time.

Originally designed for surgeons to improve their interaction with lasers, these special polycarbonate glasses created by a company called EnChroma in Berkeley reportedly have an amazing 80 percent success rate in allowing wearers to see a variety of hues previously invisible to their eyes.

We won’t know the large scale effect of these glasses until they’ve been publicly available to study for a few years. The designers expect that the glasses could help colorblind people to a significant degree in many areas, from cooking to operating machinery, and will hopefully lead to an increase in job opportunities for wearers.

They hope to provide the glasses to colorblind children. If color deficiency is detected and addressed early enough, these glasses may be able to help colorblind children avoid the challenges of being treated differently by teachers and falling into the problematic catch-all category of having a “learning disability.”

For those non-colorblind people out there who have a hard time understanding what it’s like to be colorblind, let’s get a few misconceptions out of the way.

  1. No, it’s not like being a dog. For most of us, anyway. It’s not a grayscale. It’s just that some color “groups” are indistinguishable.
  2. No, we’re not interested in “proving it.” Go fuck yourself.
  3. The second most annoying reaction we field regularly is, “So what color is this?” It doesn’t work that way, people. The brain understands color in context. The reason that color-blindness tests are a bunch of dots. Looking at a big picture with only one color, it’s likely that a color-deficient person will see it accurately. When you have a picture with lots of different colors adjacent to each other, however — like my math test with 100 cars — that’s where we get tripped up.
  4. Yes, we know how to drive perfectly well. Even if the colors of traffic lights weren’t as brightly electric as possible, they’re also organized vertically (with “stop” at the top and “go” at the bottom).
  5. For almost all colorblind people, there is no affect to daily life whatsoever.

So what effect has it had for people like me? In a word: discouragement.

Judy Garland
Giving the phrase “friend of Dorothy” a whole new meaning.

Despite all of these difficulties, I’ve actually always felt like I’ve had a knack for color. I have a passion for design. With a different set of eyes, I might’ve become a graphic designer. I consider my visual “sensibility” and taste one of my strongest suits. But the idea of making a big mistake and not being able to see it, or turning in a project with glaring errors… it’s embarrassing! These worries bring a level of self-consciousness and concern that can lead colorblind people like me to stray away from career paths that are visual by nature.

Now, thanks to science, for a cool $325 to $450, all that could change.

As I said before… It’s not like I see in grayscale, but when I think about putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world as most people do, with more colors than I’ve ever known I can’t help but picture Dorothy on her first day in Oz. I have no idea what to expect.

In the meantime, when people ask, I’m happy to remind them…

It’s not really accurate to say that I don’t see color. In reality, no one does, because technically speaking, color doesn’t even exist.

Until the day I try on these magic glasses, however…

I’m going to draw my oceans purple.