Seeing Color Colorblind – “Sometimes I wish people could see what I saw.”
Seeing color colorblind: what does the world look like to “colorblind” people? What do they see? There is no single right answer, because three major types and multiple degrees of color vision deficiencies are found worldwide.
Seeing color is something that those of us with normal color vision take for granted. People with color deficiencies make clear that our senses, including seeing color, are individual. Seeing color requires photo pigments in the cones of the eye to sense long wavelength light (L cones, roughly “red”), medium wavelength light (M cones, roughly “green”), and short wavelength light (S cones, roughly “blue”).
“Colorblind” has been applied to people with a wide range of color deficiencies in the required photo pigments. Deficiencies in red photo pigments and in green photo pigments have often been lumped together as “red-green colorblindness,” but people with severe red deficiencies perceive the world differently from people with green deficiencies.
“Colorblindness” has always been present in my life. My father was “red-green colorblind.” I never really knew exactly what that meant until recently. I just knew he had trouble differentiating some colors. I knew from at least the time I was in high school that any son of mine would have a 50/50 chance of being colorblind like his maternal grandfather. I do not remember exactly when we knew my son was colorblind like his maternal grandfather, but he was very young. In retrospect, none of us in the family thought much about it. It was what it was, certainly not unexpected. My father and son saw the world alike, and understood each other. They did not have to explain to each other what they saw. I’ve learned relatively recently that my father and son see virtually no red, and fit the classification of “red dichromats.”
Because colorblindness was such a normal part of family life, before beginning work on this project I had never considered the deep impact it might have had on my son, especially in the school years. If any parents with young children are reading this, let me say that there are good books out there about some of the problems children with color vision deficiencies encounter, and resources to help parents help their children deal with them. I certainly wish I had been more aware as a mother.
On March 15, 2015 I saw the first in a series of videos made by EnChroma, a company that makes glasses that help many people with color vision deficiencies see a broader range of colors. I must have watched the video at least twenty times that day, and cried throughout. I thought of the times my son had said, “I wish just once, even if just for a minute, I could see the world the way other people do.” Finally, here was the chance, I thought. My mother saw the video, and immediately ordered some of the EnChroma glasses for her grandson.
Unfortunately, the glasses as developed to the time of this writing do not provide the “wow” effect for people with severe red deficiency, the kind and degree of color deficient vision my father had and my son has. EnChroma has an easily understood explanation for how their glasses work, and why they do not work for people like my son:
Normally there are three distinct classes of cone cells: one class absorbs mainly red light (called the L-cones), another absorbs mainly green light (the M-cones), and another absorbs blue light (S-cones). But, in a person with red-green color blindness, one of those is anomalous. For example, the L-cone absorbs too much of the green light (a condition called a PROTAN deficiency), or the M-cone absorbs too much of the red light (DEUTAN “doo-tan” deficiency).
Returning to the subject of this spectral overlap: the situation is analogous to how two adjacent radio stations might bleed together (which is called “cross-talk”). It makes a mess of conflicting information, and the more the L-cone and M-cone signals overlap, the greater the confusion or extent of color vision deficiency. Can we correct for this problem somehow? Well, there is hope: the eye is fundamentally healthy, the neural wiring for processing color is intact and correct, and for the vast majority of cases (greater than 80% of red-green color blindness), the amount of overlap is less than 100%. (If there is 100% overlap, then there is no way to provide differential filtering.)
My father was and my son is essentially “red dichromats,” functionally having only two kinds of working cones, the M cones and S cones. My son reports seeing a little pink with the glasses, and he does enjoy the way things look overall with the glasses. He is very glad he has them.
When I realized at that point that the technology does not yet exist for him to see the world as I see it, I began to wonder if there were any way I could see the world through his eyes. The answer was yes, through the use of digital photography and a variety of digital techniques I had learned over the years. My son has verified results as we worked on images. The process has increased my understanding of my adult son and his life, and, at least for me, has deepened our relationship. This is the most satisfying use of photography I have made to date – to see the world through the eyes of my son and father, or seeing color colorblind.
The work with my son on creating diptychs which people with normal color vision would see as very different, but which my son, a red dichromat, sees as the same, became the basis for the book, “Seeing Color Colorblind,” now available at Amazon in both paperback ($19.99) and Kindle ($2.99) editions. As I was working on the book, there were times, as there are with all projects, at which I wondered if the work was important enough for all that effort. At those times I would replay a different EnChroma video, the one with “Andrew” in which he states, “Sometimes I wish people could see what I saw.”
When my son received his final printed copy of the book, he said, “so now can you do a book so that colorblind people can see the world like normal people?” Unfortunately, I cannot. I wish I could. But I decided to set up this website to share resources about color, color vision, color deficient vision, new technologies, articles by others about well known people who happen to have color deficient vision, and on and on: seeing color colorblind. 🙂