A far more complicated experience than I ever imagined…
Five months ago, I wrote an article for this site about a wildly-exciting new line of sunglasses designed by a California-based tech company called EnChroma, that can grant, in theory, up to 80 percent color correction to colorblind wearers. As soon as I heard about them, I wanted to have them. Then I saw the price tag. These amazing feats of engineering run $350 to $500, and frankly, that price point is beyond this writer’s budget. Then I got a wild idea.
Why not reach out and ask EnChroma if they’d consider sending me a pair in exchange for a follow-up piece? What’s to lose? So I did. After a few days, I got a standard thank you – someone will surely be in touch. I picked up the thread a few times over the next few months only to get similar responses from different representatives each time saying they’d forwarded my inquiry to the correct recipient, followed by a few months of silence.
Two weeks ago, on a crazy whim, I decided to try giving it one last try. Imagine my surprise when, within 24 hours, I received an email from the Director of Internal Communications of EnChroma, accepting my request, and informing me that within two weeks I’d be receiving a pair of Gammas (the Wayfarer-esque style ones I’d asked for because – duh – they’re the sexiest) with Cx-14 lenses, the model designed specifically for my diagnosis: mild deutan – the mild end of the red-green colorblind subgroup. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to see full color for the first time in my life… in two weeks.
The package arrived… in two days.
Let me tell you… This was the hardest package not to open that I’ve ever had in my entire life. The days before Christmas as a kid had nothing on this. I’d agreed, after all, to write a follow-up piece, and it seemed only fitting that I’d make a video as part of that. That’s what everyone else is doing. That’s what everyone wants to see.
So I made a date, invited my family and some close friends, and just over a week ago, on a miraculously sunny and warm day for Seattle, I opened the box, pulled out the magical super-shades, and tried them on for the first time.
I’m a writer. Words are what I do best. Suddenly, I find myself at a loss.
Over the past week, I’ve been wearing the shades as often as possible as instructed (you apparently need to spend a collected ten hours with them outside in the sunshine before they have their full effect), thinking about what to say, how to put this experience into words. Meanwhile, everyone enthusiastically (and don’t get me wrong – I love you all) has been asking me the same questions over and over:
“SO??! How is it? What was it like trying them on? What looks different now?”
Now, having spent some serious time with these sunglasses, these colors, these questions, and my thoughts, let me start by saying this: In short, my end of the bargain turned out to be much more complicated than I could ever have imagined.
Why? Bear with me as I try to break it down as best I can:
Explaining colorblindness to people is next to impossible…
You’d think that with 29 years of personal experience, I’d have a decent elevator speech by now. The fact is that colorblindness is such a uniquely challenging condition to explain because it is by nature, in a sense, characterized by a lack of understanding.
Though many colorblind people have a general sense of how their vision falls short, they can’t exactly go around the room and point out all the objects that they can’t detect. In other words, becoming accustomed to one’s own setbacks doesn’t necessarily grant one expertise in the explanation department.
Then there’s the problem that all the language people are familiar with regarding colorblindness is imperfect at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the central term ‘colorblind’ being a particularly unhelpful problem word itself.
Let’s throw out that word unless we’re talking about someone who only sees gray-scale, okay? No one is at fault for using it because that’s the word we were all taught (everybody breathe — I’m not about to have a word police moment)…
Having said that, the word is bullshit. I’m not colorblind. Guess what? I can see ALL COLORS. What? Did I just blow your mind? Why the hell am I writing an article on colorblindness? What’s going on?
Cue Morpheus’ voice:
What if I told you that most colorblind people can see all colors?
The question is not do they see all colors, but do they NOTICE them?
Lastly, color has an ancient reputation for being near-impossible to explain to someone who can’t see it (we’ve all heard this kind of exchange in movies and books, ie. What is blue? Blue is the sky! Blue is the sea. But blue is also sadness…). And then, add to that the idea that the people listening have no real way of relating, and then throw in a dash of every colorblind person’s vision and impairments are different.
… which makes explaining color correction even trickier…
I’ve tried all week to come up with good analogies. All of them miss the mark. But here are the ones I’ve been throwing out. Perhaps if you assume each of them is pretty near to the truth, you can get somewhere close to an accurate picture:
It’s like I’ve been hearing most sections of the orchestra at the correct volume – let’s call it 10 – but the woodwinds have been turned down for me to a 2. Now I’m hearing the full orchestra all at 10.
It’s not that I don’t see all colors, per se. It’s more like I see many colors as if they’ve gone through the wash 25 times. Not gray, but… faded.
It’s not that I don’t see certain colors. It’s that I wouldn’t have noticed them. I wouldn’t think to look. They just wouldn’t stand out. They hide from me.
As you can see, language, or really the lack of perfect words, has emerged as a major player. So if it seems like I have fallen on the crutch of metaphors, it’s because… I have:
One beautiful realization for me is that metaphors seem to express the experience of colorblindness far more truthfully than technical examples.
Perhaps this has to do with numbers. According to Colour Blind Awareness, one of the world’s largest organizations devoted to the study of colorblindness, around only 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have some level of color deficiency. We’re a small group. And our condition is not life threatening. Actually, it hardly affects daily life at all. As a result, when it comes to science and funding, those items put us low on the priority list. Because of this, the vocabulary on the subject isn’t given to us by science. In essence, I believe we simply don’t have the words yet. I’ll try my best.
But before we dive into the “money moment”, I think it’s important to say that condensing this transformation into a 5-minute Aha! moment is not at all the proper way to tell this story – though I couldn’t have known that at the time – primarily because… that’s not when the real magic happened.
The moment of trying on the glasses amounted to about a twentieth of the grand, wild, blossoming experience that has been this past week for me.
According to EnChroma’s handy “User’s Guide”, the glasses take fifteen minutes for one’s eyes to adjust to (just as eyes take time to adjust to any change in light), but for first-time users, they take a collected ten hours of time before one may appreciate the full effect. This process takes time because your brain literally needs to retrain itself to accept the new information. Thus, assuming that one is going to have the big tears-of-joy moment everyone wants to see in the first seconds of the first wear (though this does happen for some – you can see it in others’ videos)… is a recipe to set some of us – ahem… ME – up for disappointment.
Please keep that in mind when you watch this video of my first wear.
I feel guilty saying it, but my first reaction was… disappointment.
Maybe you can hear it in my voice. I can. I can hardly shut up. I’m trying to rationalize things at a million miles a minute. Everyone wanted to know what I saw! Truth is… I didn’t see everything so differently. And I’ll be honest: I was nervous. I really didn’t know what to expect. It was stressful. Nobody’s fault at all. This is just one of those moments you really can’t prepare for. And I like to prepare.
Plus, I felt the pressure to be camera-friendly, to give everyone what they wanted, to make a good scene that would help tell a good story, and of course, I wanted to show my gratitude for the opportunity. My head was swarming with thoughts and feelings.
In the first minute of trying them on, however, my vision of the world didn’t really change that much. Certain colors certainly “popped” more. And that was really fucking cool! But, in the grand scheme of things, based on what I’d hoped for, and what I’d seen in others’ videos…. Even the colors that changed hadn’t really changed by that much! With all of that built up, how could one not be disappointed?
Then a second wave of feeling came in. Relief.
Eventually, I thought to myself:
What’s the takeaway? My vision isn’t all that different than normal vision after all. Okay. I can handle that. That’s fine…. Wait a minute. No. This is incredible news.
In my first article, I wrote about the common challenges colorblind people face in their lives, from small mistake moments, to bigger-picture struggles – the dominant one for me being self-doubt.
When you don’t know what you don’t know about a given subject, one can feel deeply insecure about trying to sound remotely authoritative when talking about it. Colorblind people like me sometimes politely go quiet in conversations when color comes up, or reframe questions in ways that give us clues so we can get on board with the important information the message is meant to convey:
1: See that guy in the purple shirt over there?
2: The one next to the lady with the shoulderbag? (CLASSIC CB MOVE!)
1: Will you go into my room and get my green pants?
2: Green pants? I don’t remember… What material are they? (NAILED IT!)
1: Which one of these do you prefer, the red one or the green one?
2. Hmm. You know, the one on the left really stands out to me more. (META!)
When I started to realize that this whole time the amount my vision is “off” is not nearly as much as I feared it might be… I can’t describe the amount of relief that gave me. I have shied away from entire career paths for fear of humiliating myself, Really. To name a few paths I decided to forgo pursuing… lighting design, interior design, costume design, set design, graphic design – all the designs! And forget attempting to present any kind of expertise on the subject of color (how could I?), in spite of the fact that… I love color. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a slice of my mind when it comes to color. For starters, I spend far too much time each morning considering the color composition of my outfit. I have strong and sometimes controversial opinions on color matches…
-Black & Navy: Not only do they co-mingle, they celebrate each other.
-Black & Brown: Sadly, the wisdom’s right: a no-no in almost any circumstance.
-Black & Gold: Classic, timeless, sexy. Just don’t overdo it.
-White: Can be worn any time of year and looks good on everyone.
-Yellow: Not always my color. I can light up like I’m jaundiced. Really.
-Maroon: My favorite non-black color to wear, because it brings out the warmth in my dark brown hair, which often looks black.
-Other Favorites: Teal, Seafoam, Coral, Mint, Bronze, Sky Blue, Neons…
And that’s just the beginning. I obsess over palettes for the décor of the rooms of my house and organize them accordingly.
I just don’t necessarily bring color up in conversation for fear of being wrong.
Color insecurity is continually reinforced by the idea that I’d accepted until this past month that one simply will never have a way of knowing how off one’s perception is. Now I know. I’m really not that far off.
Over the course of the week, the glasses did start to have more of an effect. Graffiti on the sides of buildings, billboards, flowers, cars, magazines (HOLY F, MAGAZINE COVERS ARE ALIVE – I DON’T KNOW HOW Y’ALL CAN HANDLE IT)… Everything started popping out to me like never before.
And then the craziest thing happened…
I started seeing more colors when the shades weren’t even on.
Now, believe me: I know that his part sounds like make-believe. It’s a bit woo-woo for me to digest myself, and I’m the one watching it happen. The thing is that I’m quite literally re-training my brain, telling it that there is more information to gather than it’s been told before, and showing it how to gather that information. Another example I like to use is this one:
There are five objects of different colors in a row. This is what I see:
COLORBLIND VISION: A – A – A – E – E
CORRECTED VISION: A – B – C – D – E
My brain is working hard trying to fight against its own two opposite impulses:
Recognize that there’s more information that is useful to distinguish.
Fight back re-imposing the way things should be / have been in the past.
As a result, the next feeling, equally unexpected as the first two, was exhaustion. Yep. I started to get tired after the first fifteen minutes (you can hear me getting the “I’m done” tone at the end of the video), a feeling like I’d just done a heavy cram session in college, and didn’t know at first if it wasn’t even related, because I didn’t feel it in my eyes; I just felt super sleepy. Now that it’s happened almost daily, I know this to be a side effect. My brain is having a major argument with a new voice of clarity and an old stubborn know-it-all voice which is trying its very damnedest not to accept the new way. So it’s been a trip. Getting used to this. And the hardest part has remained the thing people want most: the explanation. And I don’t know how else to put it except to say this:
There are words and phrases in other languages that capture concepts we don’t have in English. Some of these words represent beautiful concepts, but most are next to impossible to perfectly translate.
The things I’m seeing now for the first time… no perfect translation exists for them in language.
Those who are curious should try taking a test to see if EnChroma glasses might be a good fit.