Being colorblind comes with its fair share of headaches: We can’t become pilots, often need help matching articles of clothing, and struggle to perceive traffic lights from afar. Still, the biggest hurdle might be fielding questions like: “How is what you see different from what I see?”
That's one I've heard all my life; it's usually followed by ad hoc tests of my ability (or inability) to perceive the hues of nearby objects. While I’ve begrudgingly entertained the latter, I’ve never been able to adequately answer the question about how exactly my sight differs from the average person’s. Until now.
This epiphany, to put it romantically—and hey, I just saw pink for the first time, so I’m allowed to get a little rhapsodic here—came about via the good graces of colorblindness-correcting glasses from En Chroma.
Michael Arbeiter (left) and a friend. Photo by Alexandra Breines.
WHAT IS COLORBLINDNESS, EXACTLY?
A common misconception is that colorblindness has to do with an insufficient supply of rod and cone cells in the eye. It’s actually only the cones that play a part in colorblindness, and the issue isn’t with quantity—even severe sufferers boast the standard 6 or 7 million—but of these cells’ behavior.
All cone cells are armed with molecules called photopigments, which absorb light particles, i.e. photons, allowing for the interpretation of color. The cones in the eye of a typical viewer separate into three types, each responsible for taking in different lengths of light waves: L-cones perceive long-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to the color red; M-cones perceive medium-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to green; and S-cones perceive small-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to blue. The countless combinations of these kinds of waves hitting the eye at different volumes result in the million different colors that the average person observes over the span of his or her life—or even in a single day.
The cones in someone with colorblindness don't distinguish between light waves quite as well. For most, the problem is one of egregious overlap of wave absorption within a single cone. When an L-cone takes in too much green light, or an M-cone too much red, the eye will have problems differentiating between these colors. This results in a number of difficulties, including the classification of certain objects’ colors and the distinction between disparately colored objects as just that.
In much rarer cases, a severely colorblind viewer’s cones will lack altogether the ability to take in certain types of color waves. In my case though—and in that of 80 percent of colorblind individuals—the condition is not quite this dire, and as such, is not beyond the influence of modern science. Specialized lenses in glasses En Chroma help a colorblind eye to better discriminate between, for instance, long- and medium-wavelength light, enabling a more consistent and vivid distinction of greens from reds.
FROM NO GREEN TO ELECTRIC PINK
It was after taking a colorblindness test on the company’s website that I learned En Chroma’s glasses would work for me. Like many I’d taken before, the test featured a collection of slides, each depicting an arrangement of differently colored circles that displayed the image of a number. Depending on the arrangement, it was varyingly difficult to make out the figure in the picture. I took the test a handful of times, yielding results between moderate, strong, and extreme severity of a type of red-green colorblindness that En Chroma calls “deutan” (after deuteranopia, a variety of color vision deficiency affecting green photoreceptors).
It sounds more like a science fiction race than an optical disorder, but the label refers to anyone suffering from an abnormality in the M-cone. Reading through the website, I discovered the alternative diagnosis of “protan” (after protanopia), a type of red-green colorblindness referring to an abnormality in the L-cone. Though protans too could reap the benefits of En Chroma glasses, the site suggested that the lenses would have the most observable and immediate effects on a moderate or strong deutan user. I decided to give them a shot.
Ultimately, the glasses did much more than just better separate my greens from reds; they allowed for the appreciation of whole new shades. I could see multiple colors on a single leaf, a sunlit cloud contrasted with the midday sky, and in a neighbor's flower bed, my very first glimpse of true pink, which jumped electrically from every petal.
Photo by Alexandra Breines.
Not everything was transformed when I wore the glasses. I met many a floral arrangement, t-shirt, or graffiti mural that I still had trouble deciphering, or didn’t seem to be any different from what I saw with the naked eye. But there was plenty to revel in. Alongside my discovery of pink, one highlight was my first-ever sighting of the green, yellow, and red of a common traffic light. To me, it had always looked like one white light and two near-identical splotches of orange.
"HOW IS WHAT YOU SEE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT I SEE?"
But the very best thing is that I can finally answer that question—because now I can actually see the difference. So listen up, every friend, classmate, and co-worker who has ever asked: Here's my answer.
The next time you look upon a rose, sunset, or green street sign, imagine the object muted, as if it had been filtered through a few layers of colorless haze. What you’d wind up with is an object whose color is far less bright and vibrant—less alive, really—but less pronounced as well. It would lack intricacies like shading, rendering it one vague hue. You’d likely not even be able to guess exactly what color it is supposed to be. In fact, the color might even be too reliant on a certain specificity for me, without the glasses, to ever see it all.
Yes, that sounds like a bummer. (Actually, now that I know what I'm missing, my vision deficiency is more of a bummer than I ever realized.) The good news is, the science behind the lenses continues to be refined. Alongside En Chroma, many companies are developing glasses, contact lenses, cameras, apps, video games, and other digital programs to make life easier for the 280 million men and 1.7 million women worldwide that suffer from some degree of colorblindness. Scientists are researching how street lights, public maps, key cards, and household electronics can be altered to better accommodate the chromatically impaired. Maybe one day there won't be a difference between what you and I see.