Rejecting Enchroma

Wherein I refuse to accept that my vision is deficient. 

When I was in sixth grade, I got a C in art class.  I was a good student in general, but that class utterly defeated me.  The teacher, may her name be blotted from my personal history, refused to accept my excuse for constantly missing questions about the color wheel and color combinations.

I am colorblind.

For those unfamiliar, colorblindness is an inability to discern certain colors.  It comes in many varieties, and I have several.  It is also genetic.  Most of my uncles, along with my brother, are also colorblind to varying degrees.

My form of colorblindness manifests in the ability to see only five colors: black, white, green, blue, and yellow.  If it’s not on the list, find the closest color, and that’s what I see.  Brown, orange, and red, for instance, all look green.  Purple and pink are blue, except when pink is dark enough to read green.  It’s a complicated system to explain, and I can’t always predict what I’ll see if you show me (insert color word here).

Because, and this is what I think people don’t really get about colorblindness, those colors are just words: they don’t really exist, at least, not to me.  When somebody tells me that something is “periwinkle,” I usually respond that periwinkle is a flower, not a color.  “No,” they tell me, indulgently, “it’s like a dark blue.”  Then call it dark blue, and stop making things up, I (mostly) don’t retort.

For many years of my childhood, I thought colors were a prank that everyone was in on, so they could laugh at me about it.  I thought they were making it up. Without dwelling too long or hard on how much it sucked to be bullied as a kid in general, suffice it to say that my recognition that colors beyond my five were a real concept and not just an inside joke came gradually.

Imagine, if you will, looking at a single-colored object.  Let’s use a yellow post-it note, because that’s what’s in front of me and you probably can visualize one easily.  Someone asks you what color it is, and you say yellow. They then get a look that could be amazement, or ridicule, and it’s impossible to tell which, and say “Really?  That whole thing looks yellow to you?  You mean this” here they point to the left side of the note, “and this” here they point to the right “are the same?  Wow!  That must suck!  You can’t see bumblebee yellow?”  And it’s confusing!  Because of COURSE they’re the same color.  These other people must be nuts!

This bit of personal history, and the frustration and resentment that come with it, informs my reaction to the semi-recent proliferation of colorblind-fixing eye wear.  These products, made by a company called Enchroma, purport to “fix” colorblindness in its most common form, red/green, by filtering certain wavelengths of light.  They only work about fifty percent of the time, but for those that do, they can actually “fix” the brain, so that after some time, the wearer can discern colors without wearing the glasses.

The internet is rife with videos of people seeing colors for the first time using these glasses, and many of my friends have sent me links.  I even had a dream a week or so ago, that some friends of mine threw me a surprise birthday party at MOMA and gave me a pair of the glasses, so I could see my favorite works of art in color.

My feelings on the Enchroma glasses are pretty complicated, and are informed by my history of people’s reactions to my colorblindness.  I do not feel that I am being somehow cheated, or that my experience is somehow lessened, because I don’t perceive the full spectrum of colors.  I acknowledge that it can be occasionally inconvenient, since society often uses color-coding for information and fashion, but it doesn’t “suck” for me.  I’m an optimist, and I like the world I see, as I see it.  I am not broken, defective, or missing anything.  Colorblindness is not a disease or a disability to me.  I see and navigate the world just fine, and I have never known it to look any different.  My favorite works of art are fantastic, just as they are, without anything missing from them.

Moreover, Enchroma glasses will not “fix” my colorblindness.  I have too many types, and it is aimed at precisely one of them.  At best, it could permit me to be marginally less colorblind.  My five colors could become six or seven.  That is not worth the investment of time, money, and energy.  The hardest part of colorblindness, for me, has been learning how to explain it to other people.  I know how to do that now; I’ve had nearly 35 years of practice.  If my vision changes, I will need to re-learn how to explain the limits of my color perception to people.  It’s not worth it, just to see red.

When I was in college and reading pretentious philosophy, I remember forming the belief- one I still hold today- that if we could experience the world through somebody else’s eyes, it would look completely different.  Sounds, colors, tastes, touch, everything.  Our experiences, I believe, are entirely subjective, and we agree on language to create the illusion of commonality.  That’s heavy for a post about colorblindness, but it is relevant inasmuch as those realities, and those subjective experiences, are all valid.  Just because somebody experiences the world differently, doesn’t mean they experience it less.

Colorblindness is not a disability, it is an inconvenience, not so different from being short of stature.  There are certain things that are more challenging, and there are occasions when platform shoes might be convenient, but leg extension surgery seems like a bit much, particularly if it were only on one leg.  That’s how I feel about Enchroma glasses: they’re an asymmetrical leg-extension for a short person, useful in concept, but rather silly in application.

So that dream, the one about a birthday surprise at MOMA with the glasses, was actually a nightmare.  The first thing I did when I woke up was tell my partner to NOT ever do something like that.  Pathologizing my limited color vision, and using these “miracle” glasses as a way to generate “awwww” moments for Youtube, does not sound like fun, or even particularly useful.  Perhaps some day, when the technology improves, the cost comes down, and the zeitgeist has moved on to fixing other non-problems, I will try them out, but more out of curiosity than perceived necessity, or even utility.

In the meantime, if I had the time and money to spend on technological solutions to personal challenges, I’d get laser eye surgery.  Being nearsighted is a real, measurable hindrance.

Being colorblind is not.

~AG

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Published in: on March 7, 2017 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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