Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trying to fix color blindness

Fascinating, I know.

Now that doesn’t mean I see the world in only shades of grey. While there are people with that affliction, it’s incredibly rare. I’m the more common type of color blind, where I can see colors, it's just that different shades are hard for me to discern. Reds, greens, and browns tend to blend together, and I often get blue and purple mixed up. Nothing too major.

The easiest way to explain this is in how I see traffic lights. Instead of seeing the lights as red, yellow, and green, I see red-orange, greenish yellow, and white. In fact, it was only within the last 10 years or so that I learned that car headlights are actually white, not green. To me, they're the same color as stoplights, so I figured that both were green. And that's the only time where being color blind has truly affected me - night driving can be a bit of an adventure for me, especially when I'm approaching an intersection. Like I said - nothing too major.

ANYWAY, my parents and I have known since I was pretty young that I'm color blind (as is my brother). It's not anything bad - I heard it disqualified me from being a pilot, but I was never too broken up about that. I had heard about people who were developing glasses specifically for the color blind, and I was intrigued if they would work. But I never thought about buying them for myself.

Apparently my mom saw the same thing online that I saw about the color blind glasses, because she used some money my Grandma gave her to buy a pair for my brother and me. I was shocked - I honestly never expected to get my hand on those things. I was excited to try them on right away.

So it’s possible you’ve seen some videos online of people trying on these glasses and being moved to tears after seeing color for the first time. That’s not an accident – that’s part of the company’s PR campaign. When you get the glasses, your kit also includes brightly colored balloons and instructions on what to do to post your “viral” video. It’s a strange approach, especially since the EnChroma says straightaway that most users will not have an immediate effect like that. The instructions also said the glasses should be used outside in bright conditions, and that they worked best if the user’s eyes gave them time to adjust. If those are the instructions, why the big deal about the viral videos and the immediate effect?

(Oh, that’s right. Marketing.)

My brother and I both tried on the glasses. We looked at the bright balloons. We looked outside. We looked at an online color blind test. And nothing. It was like wearing sunglasses inside. No change whatsoever.

My poor mom was devastated. She was really expecting us to have the immediate reaction she saw online – she even had her phone out to record it. I think she wanted to take the glasses back right away, but I convinced her to let us have another crack at it.

After we got home, Nicci and I read the instructions and saw we were doing everything wrong: we put them on indoors (strike one), on a cloudy day approaching sunset (strike two), and kept taking them on and off to compare what we saw (strike three). Of course they weren’t going to work the firs time. I took the color blindness test on the company's website (which is really the same color blind test I've been taking my whole life) and was told that I'm a moderate deutan, and it said the glasses would help 90% of such people.

So Nicci came up with a plan to give the glasses the best chance of working, rather than the worst chance of working. We would go to the Como Zoo Observatory. If they were going to work, that would be the perfect place for it: a bright place full of (what I assume to be) many shades of green and pink and purple. If I was going to have a life-changing “a-ha” moment, that would be the place.

So on Sunday (which was a bright, sunny day), I put them on while Nicci drove. That way my eyes could adjust while we took the time to get there – and if the glasses messed with my vision at all, I wouldn’t be behind the wheel to kill us all. Going there, I noticed some subtle things: the colors on the electronic billboards seemed slightly brighter, the stoplights had more appropriate colors as I approached them, and there seemed to be far more purple in the world than I ever knew there was.

After looking at everything I could to try to discern a difference, I concluded that wearing the glasses made it look like someone took an old TV set and adjusted the Tint a couple of notches. It wasn't a big difference, but it was there. And that was the "a-ha" moment for me: I didn't have a realization of what the world "actually" looks like, but I had a way for me to finally accurately describe what it's like to be color blind. Just imagine someone turning down the Tint on the world.

The conservatory wasn't anything special - the flowers looked the same, a giant anaconda stared Abby in the eyes, I saw the same shades of green I always saw. Just like any other visit there. Nothing earth-shattering about what I was seeing. So we left, and I took the glasses off, and I drove home, with the world looking like it always had. I was slightly bummed, but I was more disappointed on behalf of my parents, and Nicci, and my kids, the ones who really wanted these to work for me so I could see what I was missing.

But what am I missing, really? So green lights look white to me. So what? I still see color. The world looks just as beautiful to me as it does to anybody else. I just have a different version of beautiful than most other people. So what?

Quite frankly, if the glasses had worked wonders, I would have felt embarrassed keeping them anyway. They're not cheap, and I would much rather spend that money to take the kids on a fun adventure somewhere than on what would essentially be a vanity purchase for me. I appreciate the thought behind the gift, but I would have been full of guilt keeping them.

So was EnChroma lying about their glasses? Well, technically, probably not. I did see slightly enhanced colors. But the effect was very slight. So I suppose I'm one of the 90%. But they weren't life-changing. And until they come up with lenses that can work at night when I'm trying to tell the difference between a green light and a headlight, they're not going to be a worthwhile purchase for me.

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