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New Glasses Reveal A Spectrum Of Joy

horizontal traffic light using shapes as well as colors
A traffic light designed for ease of reading by color-blind drivers, Saint-Laurent, Montreal.
Photo by Sprocket at English Wikipedia.

You may have recently encountered a touching video like this one somewhere on social media. In them, grown men are visibly overwhelmed by, and sometimes cry tears of joy over, something most of us take for granted: seeing a full range of colors.

Mathematician Andrew Schmeder and Don McPherson, who holds a PhD in glass science, developed a set of glasses called Enchroma. These glasses help those with color vision deficiency (CVD, more commonly known as color blindness) distinguish colors they had not been able to see before through “multinotch” filtering, or “cutting out sharp wavelengths of light to enhance specific colors,” according to Enchroma’s website. While the creators of Enchroma do not guarantee someone wearing the glasses will pass a color blindness test, their glasses can certainly provide a different world view. Color vision deficiency affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women, with red-green color blindness being the most common form. Men are affected more commonly than women because the genes that influence the photopigments in the eyes are carried on the X chromosome.

Those without color vision deficiency often do not fully appreciate the complications related to being color blind. Being color blind, however, can affect your safety and potentially your livelihood.

Imagine coming to a traffic light and not being able to tell if the light is green or red because both lights appear brown. (Newer lights are tinted to improve recognition in red-green color-blind drivers, but especially with older lights, many color-blind drivers rely on the standardized vertical arrangement more than the color.) Imagine braking more slowly because it takes longer to respond to the car in front of you illuminating their brake lights. Or imagine the challenge of navigating public transit with a color-coded system and not being able to easily tell which subway line to take. Some governments are taking steps to help those affected by color blindness navigate more easily. For instance, some parts of Australia are developing a new traffic light that will show shapes instead of colors. In Portugal, a new code made up of lines and dots will help color-blind people read subway maps.

Safety aside, people with CVD are barred from a variety of career opportunities. Under most circumstances they cannot join the military or certain areas of law enforcement. They often cannot become pilots, electricians or engineers. These restrictions exist because of real safety concerns. In 2002, a FedEx plane crashed in Tallahassee, Florida because William Frye, who had failed a vision test in the mid-1990s due to a “mild red-green defect” but received a waiver because of his history as a Navy pilot, could not distinguish white runway lights from red. Frye crashed a half-mile short of the runway. Luckily, none of the crew was seriously injured.

Could Enchroma give those with CVD access to such fields one day? At what cost? According to Enchroma’s site, glasses range from $269 for kids to $429 for certain adult styles. Enchroma can also add an existing prescription to the glasses. Enchroma is not affiliated with a Vision Service Plan (VSP) at this time and does not deal with insurance companies directly, but the company says customers can request a receipt for reimbursement, which is granted at the discretion of the individual’s insurance provider. Enchroma does, however, accept flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) dollars.

Prescription eyeglasses can be deducted as a medical expense on taxes, assuming you exceed the threshold of 10 percent of adjusted gross income. But you don’t need a prescription to buy a pair of glasses from Enchroma. If your doctor prescribes Enchroma eyeglasses specifically, the expense would be deductible, and Enchroma does offer prescription lenses that offer standard vision correction as well as color vision enhancement. While Enchroma glasses cost more than most typical prescription glasses, purchasing them is not out of the realm of possibility for the average consumer, especially with an FSA/HSA or an income tax deduction.

I am not color-blind myself, nor do I have any other vision problems. But my husband, Dustin, suffers from keratoconus in his left eye. Keratoconus is a condition in which the cornea thins and bulges outward into a cone shape. This thinning causes blurred vision, lack of depth perception and the appearance of streaks on lights at night (including traffic signals and headlights). While only Dustin’s left eye is affected, keratoconus can often affect both eyes.

Dustin was not diagnosed until he was 20 years old. He had auditioned and secured a spot playing French horn in the Band of the Golden West at Travis Air Force Base in California. Unfortunately, he was medically disqualified because his eye condition could not be corrected to 20/20 with glasses. (It’s corrected close to 20/40.) He was not even aware he had keratoconus until his physical.

Dustin has tried many different treatments over the years, including a hard contact that hurt his eye too much to continue and a soft contact he started wearing a few months ago, which has given him some depth perception back in his left eye. He would not be a good candidate for LASIK, because doctors don’t want to take the chance of damaging his “good” right eye. Short of a corneal transplant, there is no cure for his condition. Keratoconus often gets worse with age, and Dustin is lucky that his vision hasn’t deteriorated too much in the past several years. But he has still expressed his regret at not being able to serve in the military due to his eye condition, especially since there was a high chance he never would have seen combat.

I take my good vision for granted, because I have never known any differently. I’ve never had to wear glasses or contacts, and I have never been disqualified for a position due to my eyesight. Watching my husband live with keratoconus has been hard; it’s difficult to understand what he has gone through and to see him miss the life he could have led in the Air Force. I hope one day there will be a cure for keratoconus, especially for my husband’s sake.

The creators of Enchroma have aided many with CVD to see a new, vibrant world relatively inexpensively. Doubtless the company will continue to improve their product in hopes that one day, color blindness is completely correctable. This would open up new career possibilities for those who suffer from CVD, as well as bringing joy to those, young and old, who can see the world in a new way.

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