An Empathy Lesson From A Color-Blind Boy

Our eldest boy turned 13 today, and we got him a very special birthday present.

See, he’s got a strong deuteranomaly, which is a fancy way of saying he’s color-blind. The green cones in his eyes detect too much red light and not enough green light, so red, yellow, green and brown all look similar to him.

The test for color blindness is simple. You can do it yourself in two minutes. It’s called an Ishihara test, and it shows you a bunch of dots in a circle. Some of the dots are different colors, and the different colored dots form numbers, and if you have normal vision you can see them with no problem, but if you’re color blind you can’t.

Also, if you have normal vision, you might be tempted to think it’s a joke, because some of the number-dots are a really different color than the background ones. The first time our boy did the test, I sat next to him looking at a hot-pink “6” on a teal-green background while he said, “Nope, there’s no number there at all.”



The present we got him for his birthday was a pair of glasses that allow him to see color. I was hoping for a super-viral internet moment (amazement, shock, tears, eternal gratitude), but that’s not quite what happened. He put them on and said everything just looked red.

But then we went online and did the test again -- and this time, he got all the answers right. At the end, he turned to me and said, incredulously, “Is this what you all are seeing all the time?”

Which reminded me of something my eye doctor told me a long time ago: We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive.

In other words, our boy wasn’t walking around thinking, “Man, I wish I could see more color!” because, for his brain, the color he could see before the glasses was all there was. I mean, people with normal vision aren’t walking around going, “Man, I wish I could see in ultraviolet!”

And, just as I experienced sitting next to him as he did the test, it can be hard to imagine what it’s like to not see the colors you see. It was all I could do to hold back from exclaiming, “How can you not see that 6? It’s so obvious!”

But I cannot mock him into seeing the 6. I cannot shout him into it. I cannot shame him into it. We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive.

What I can do is get him the glasses: a tool to help him see the world as I see it. A tool for empathy.

It’s easy, online, to be angry at people. To pick fights, to hit back, to indulge the snark within. It’s easy to think people are stupid, that they’re uneducated, that they’re ill-intentioned.

Remember our boy the next time you’re angry at people online. Every person on the planet is operating with a different set of information. Sometimes there’s enough overlap for all of us to agree it’s a 6. Sometimes there isn’t, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could see something different from what we see.

You can’t mock people into seeing what you see. You can’t shout them into it. You can’t shame them into it.

All you can do is offer them your glasses, and hope: for amazement, shock, tears, eternal gratitude. For empathy.

You might not get those things, but you never know -- you just might.

1 comment about "An Empathy Lesson From A Color-Blind Boy".
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  1. Bryce Hoover from HVR Media, March 3, 2021 at 4:30 p.m.

    when I discovered the enchroma glasses I thought "THIS IS WHAT I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR!!".

    I was super excited thinking a pair of $400 glasses would make my job in video/tv so much easier, I'll be able to see what everyone else thinks I see. I asked my eye doctor about them, and she told me exactly what your eye doctor told you "We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive." Honestly, I should have known better.

    Thank you for this article. Being colorblind, color perception deficient, hue challenged, etc. sucks. I've been in TV post production for my entire career (23+ years), and have been asked for the last 12 or so years to do color correction. Correcting white balance is one thing, correcting for skin tone is totally different, and terrifying! I've adapted using scopes and relying on good working relationships. However, I learned that several of the producers I've worked with, and even some of my fellow editors, have some level of colorblindness. Talk about the blind leading the blind! I’m very conscious and careful to not give the impression that I’m a colorist (which is much more artsy and subjective). I make sure everyone knows I’m a technical, problem fixer, not an artist. So far that’s kept me out of the really hot seat.

    Happy Birthday to your boy, and I wish him well. Like any other kind of deficiency, we adapt and find ways to make things work. His kids will make fun of him, but that’s ok, he’ll have fun messing with them about it!


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