Noisy Water Review

Colorblind or Blinded by Color

Angela O’Brien

Let’s play a describing game. Imagine you were trying to describe what a tree looks like to a child. What is the first word you would use to describe it? You would probably say that it is green, wouldn't you? How about a cloudless sky; Blue, right? Are those too simple? OK, how would you describe a car to a friend; Its color and brand? (Look at that red Mercedes). How about a person? The color of their skin, hair, eyes, and clothes are the first usual adjectives. Try to quickly describe an object without using any adjectives having to do with color; It becomes difficult. From this it is easily concluded that almost everyone is blinded by color. Other than what the object is, its color is the first thing most people notice. Color holds an important role in describing and enjoying things. How often do you notice anything else as easily as you notice color? For example, do you sit and notice the clarity and form of dripping water the way you notice a bright sunrise?; a tree trunks texture the way you notice a rose in bloom? Unfortunately the enjoyments of small detail is lost to so many busy people today. Many only allow themselves to take in what is most obvious. Everyone should use their skills and abilities to notice and enjoy the small things, for there are many people in the world who can see less, and enjoy more.

Annie Dillard comments in her essay “Seeing” about how some born-blind patients, after an operation that gave them sight, saw the world. “In General the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult” (Dillard 76).  One of the first things the patients could perceive is color. The different colors seemed to innately cause them joy, but all other aspects of sight such as distance, depth, space, and shape were foreign concepts and therefore terribly difficult to understand. Unlike those patients who could not understand common visual concepts but understood color quickly, I am the opposite. I have had vision my entire life and have learned to analyze and understand many of the complexities of sight, just as other sighted people can, but color is a concept I struggle with and cannot fully understand; I have never seen color.

I have what is called Achromatopsia which is a non-degenerative genetic eye condition in which the cones of a person's eyes do not function. For those who don’t know, the back of your eyes, which is called the retina, contain two types of vision cells called cones and rods. Cones allow one to see colors, details and in bright light. They are your primary vision cells. While rods, on the other hand, allow one to see just shades of gray and are used primarily for night vision, therefore are very sensitive to light. Well sighted people use both cones and rods to have full vision. Those with Achromatopsia, such as me, do not have use of their cones which results in seeing absolutely no colors, just a spectrum of shades of gray. If that is not enough, since the ability to see fine details is lost, and rods were not meant to be used to see in daylight, those with Achromatopsia are usually legally blind and have eyes that are highly sensitive, even blinded, by bright lights.

Since I was born with Achromatopsia color is not something I have ever had the privilege to see. Sunsets, rainbows, flowers, things that many people enjoy for their colorful beauty do not attract me in the same way. Often if I see a rainbow I am more fascinated by the fact that I even found one, because they blend into the sky, than whatever colors it is supposedly made out of. I see everything as a shade, dark, light, mid- shades, and everything in-between. Instead of color variation to distinguish things I use shade contrast. The more things contrast, such as white on black, the more it pops out to me. I use my own perceptions to understand the world around me.

Perception is “the process of organizing and interpreting sensory information, enabling us to recognize meaningful objects and events” (Myers 231). Everyone has their own perceptions. Here is an example of how I interpret the world:

It is around 4:30pm in January in the Pacific Northwest. The sun (or what I suppose is the sun because it is not exposing itself) lights up the corner of the sky. I see no ball, no mass right now, just light brightest in that part of the sky. I suppose it is a sunset (or will be soon). The winter gives the clouds a dark shade making them appear as stains in the light sky, the way that tea stains on paper leave slightly darker stains in random blotches. In the other end of the sky where there is less "sun"light to discern the sky from the clouds are strips and spills of lighter and slightly darker shades. I suppose the sky is the lighter shade popping up and slashing through the heavier color, but some days I am not sure.

The sky (sun) is such that I can see with minimal (or at least what I call minimal) squinting, which means I can see the sky, buildings, people, and most importantly movement. I can see vehicles and people move in “real time”, as opposed to the days where it is bright and I must blink a few times a second. On those days my sight is limited to whitewashed stills that I see every time I blink. On dimmer bright days I can see in-between my blinks; on brighter bright days the light is so blinding that I must see with the after image when I blink. Right now though, I can see them stop and go, slow down and speed up; I am not afraid to cross the street as I walk home. I can walk with my head up and know I won’t run into someone or something. Movement is important, depth is important, and distance is important when you are trying to get around by yourself. In the sun I cannot see those things with complete accuracy, but today is good and tonight like all nights will be good. I can open my eyes (for longer than a tenth of a second) and see.

The evergreens are deep and rich with their dense shades. The bare leafless trees look duller in comparison; they allow their richness to fall away when the seasons change, but their twisted, dancing branches remain. Even the grass has subtle variations of colors or it could be the reflection of the light (which is what color is) which gives it that appearance. The field is a sea of neutral with little apparent variation except when one strains to see its shadows in the evening light. The dried tips of the field grass look pale and lifeless next to the younger freshly cut yard grass.

From a distance the parking lot of the corner church has brush strokes of lighter; I believe those are the deeper spots where leftover rain water has glazed and the sun reflects. As I step over to them they disappear from my sight because the light is not reflecting off of the puddles from this angle. Water does two things, it stains a dark spot on anywhere it can soak in and it reflects and shines that in which it can't soak into.

As the sun is now out of sight over the horizon and the sky is not yet night, for a short time colors come alive to me, the deep darker colors I love. Though my eyes begin to blur if I try to see a detail, I am happy to see the whole picture. I can open my eyes with no pain, wide and full and take in the panorama. What a treat this is.

The way I see is different not just because I have never seen color. I have never had 20/20 vision, or 20/200 vision for that matter, I am legally blind and cannot see well in the light, but I have never seen any differently so I do not regret my sight, I get along well enough the way I am. When I think about it and compare my vision to that of my family’s I have to admit that my vision in many areas is lacking, but most of the time I do not consider myself blind. Blind people can’t see; I can see; therefore I must not be blind. Others also constantly forget that my vision is so bad; even my own family members forget and do not understand what I can and cannot see. They wonder how they could have forgotten something that should be so obvious; they realize it is because I am a good guesser. I adapted to make up for what I lack in sight and by having good abilities to see even when I can hardly see. I can look around for subtle cues such as sounds, shades, movement, and direction, those mixed with assumption and a lot of problem solving gives me enough to go on that I can guess or pretend I can see the same as others do. Erin McGraw talks in her essay “Bad Eyes” about how she too has poor vision, Myopia in her case, and that she learned to navigate through a hazy world “by memory and assumption” (156) just as I do. I am around people who can see quite well, so I have developed a way to live in this world with little attention brought to me. Most have told me that aside from my reading an inch away from a page and squinting they would have never guessed I am legally blind and completely colorblind.

Stubbornness and independence, I am told, have been in me since birth. My parents were always terrified that I would get seriously hurt because I could not see. Like most children I ran, jumped, and climbed all the time, and like most I went through lots of Band-Aids. If the other kids were doing it, I could do it better. I wanted to be treated just like the other kids. I knew my limitations and would ask for help if I desperately needed it, like if I was looking for someone or I needed help reading something, but I would only ask my family; I did not want to appear weak or unable to do things that everyone else could do. McGraw is not as stubborn as I; she accepted help from her friends and family when she was younger. At one point she asked herself, “Did I resent all of these explanations and asides, pronouncing slowly as if for the dimwitted? Not on your life. Friends and family were making things easy for me, and after years of constant unease, I was happy with that” (164). Unfortunately McGraw became lazy because she no longer tried to figure things out for herself anymore. She stopped trying to visually see and she stopped trying to understand. Since I did not treat myself like a blind person I do not act like a blind person; I am independent; there are few things I cannot do myself.

Many people have adapted a way of seeing even without vision. The blind feel, hear, and taste their surroundings to see. Their concepts are completely different from those of the sighted. For those who are completely blind from birth distance is merely the amount of time it takes to reach the destination not how far it is away; shape is the texture of an object not its appearance; space is what is immediately around the person not the expanse of everywhere. Their perceptions are guided by their senses, which cannot go beyond what they have ever known. Even if they are given an operation and their sight is restored, “[a] disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair” (Dillard 76). The new sight is frightening. Everything is just lights; form and shape are not things that they have been exposed to. They are but infants blinking into the light with no knowledge of what anything means. As one gets older the brain does not learn as easily, so concepts that we sighted think of as simple common knowledge because we learned them weeks after we were born are daunting tasks for the naturally stiffened minds to wrap around. Dillard writes of a blind young woman who was given sight through an operation but sadly she did not embrace her new sight; she would close her eyes and walk around the house in her former mindset (Dillard 66-67). By closing her mind from this new experience, she rejected her new gift.

How often do you think about what you see? How often do you pay attention to anything other than what you already know of? Sight is probably the most treasured sense, but much of its abilities are so often unappreciated. Most people don't look at the world the way a child does, enjoying every sight, asking why things are what they are. Children have a greater understanding of sight than adults because they use it more. Adults think they know it all and have seen it all, but when you think you know everything you stop paying attention, and life becomes more about routine than enjoyment.

McGraw learned her lesson about no longer paying attention. She realized she was no longer seeing the world; she was looking past it into her own world where everything was well and dandy, which would not be all bad except she was not seeing what could hurt her, so she made a change. She began to notice things again the way a child does, in detail and wonder. “The college co-ed who didn’t notice trash and graffiti has become a woman who scours every scene, vigilant in her pursuit of jarring notes, infelicitous details. She has learned to look, and to pay attention (McGraw 168).

Just because one cannot see does not mean they should stop trying to understand the world around them, and just because one can see does not mean they are at any less risk of forgetting to use their abilities and perceive. It is bad habit to live your world in a haze only wishing to focus on what you already see, being blinded by color. If you close your eyes and stop trying to learn as the blind young woman did you will waste your abilities. If a colorblind / legally blind person like me appreciates sight more than a fully sighted person, then something isn't correct. Use your perceptions and understand what you see, why you see, and how you see, then you will be able to respect and enjoy your gift.

Works Cited

Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis and Reflection. 63-82

McGraw, Erin. “Bad Eyes.” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis and Reflection. 155-168.

Myers, David. Psychology. Worth publishers: New York, New York, 2010. Print.

Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis and Reflection.  Whatcom Community College English Faculty, eds. Southlake, Texas: Fountainhead Press. 2010.

> Return to Top